It was a beautiful autumn day almost exactly a year ago when I finally visited Bookwalter United Methodist Cemetery, which had been on my list for years. It is a large–over 4,000 graves–cemetery, and has been in continuous use from the 1880s to the present day.
Many of the earliest graves are those of the Swiss/German immigrants who settled the nearby area now known as Dutch Valley.
Atop a hill with views of Sharp’s Ridge, Bookwalter Cemetery transcends its humble location, hemmed in by a busy street in front, train tracks in back, and neighborhoods on both sides.
The peaceful silence one associates with cemeteries was notably absent. In addition to traffic and train noises, I was assailed by the sounds of barking dogs, blaring radios, and bawling babies. Most disturbing of all, at the back of the cemetery I was transfixed by an argument going on in an adjacent neighborhood, where a landlord was banging on the door of a rental property and making telephone calls to his renter who was evading his attempts to collect rent. I could not tear myself away from this troubling drama of the living unfolding just yards away from this not-so-peaceful resting place of the dead.
The section of the cemetery nearest to the railroad tracks is partly devoted to the graves of infants and small children, although there are others scattered throughout the cemetery. This post is being published in October, a month set aside for mourning pregnancy and infant losses, so it seems appropriate to point out that heart-wrenching stones and tiny graves are not only a thing of the distant past.
This is a decently kept cemetery, with a few exceptions. By now I have learned that there are always exceptions.
I have learned that the city has taken on responsibility for the maintenance of the cemetery, taking over from the Police Department which had been mowing it for the sake of the surrounding neighborhoods. Why is the city having to do this? Well, that is an interesting story which we will get to below. But first, a sampling of some of the modern-day stones and epitaphs which caught my eye for one reason or another.
As I wandered through the cemetery I noted the signs below. I knew there would be a story behind this.
There was actually a surprising dearth of information about Bookwalter Cemetery online*, and this lack of historical background may be significant to what I did find–a series of legal documents indicating that the state had been forced to involve itself in the affairs of one portion of the cemetery. Like many old cemeteries, this one doesn’t have clear ownership, and what was worse, neither did the graves. Several people laid claim to the same plots and there were insufficient records kept to indicate whose claim was true. A complete survey of the cemetery had to be conducted, determining how many plots there were and which had bodies therein, with arbitration being conducted to make sure that everyone who laid claim to a plot got one. What a mess.
So I am providing you–and me–with another cautionary tale: before you buy a plot make sure the cemetery you choose is owned by a responsible company that is not only going to provide upkeep but that also maintains accurate records!
*EDIT: A reader tells me (see comments below) that the first half of the cemetery is properly called Bookwalter United Methodist Church Cemetery and is maintained by the church, and that the back half is Bookwalter Community Cemetery and is maintained by the state. I did look for information on the church’s website before writing this post, and there is no mention there of the cemetery. I also checked public records in which the cemetery appears as a single entity. I appreciate his clarification.
For more cemetery stories, visit this post.