Before today’s vast city cemeteries, people were often buried on their property. Family farms seemed like the most logical place to bury relatives and other members of the community since the homestead had been in the family for generations.
Eventually though, developers started buying up farmland to build subdivisions, shopping malls and other commercial developments. In some subdivisions and commercial developments, cemeteries are concealed behind hedges and tree lines.
I’m sure many of you have experienced the same thing as I have… you’re stopped at a traffic light or traveling down a busy road, look over and see a group of headstones all by themselves. You almost feel sorry for the poor souls who are buried there. Who would have ever thought they’d end up between a McDonald’s and Burger King?
This past fall, I set out to find small cemeteries that were off the beaten path to include in my blog. I happened to be talking to a friend who said such a cemetery existed in her family and her father was caretaker!
So one Saturday, I headed to Elizabeth, IN, best known these days as the home of Horseshoe Southern Indiana Casino to meet up with Clem Kramer and see first-hand his family’s cemetery.
St. Joachim Cemetery is located across the road from his home in an area once known as Locust Point. He drove us to the site in a utility vehicle, a good thing since the cemetery is located deep in the woods on the edge of a cliff.
The cemetery is located on the 90 acres once owned by his great-grandparents who went by the last name Bower. They donated eight acres to their church. A house of worship was built on the property; a cemetery was later added.
Although the church burned down in the 1930s, the cemetery remains. It’s owned by the Archdiocese in Indiana who pays Kramer to care for the property.
In the warm months, he mows the grass. And last summer he and his two sisters spent three months painting the wrought iron fence that encircles the cemetery thanks to the generosity of Steve Goodman, an area businessman who is also a distant cousin. “There are 292 metal fleurs-de-lis on top of the fence posts,” says Kramer. “We painted them gold.”
There are currently 27 headstones in St. Joachim Cemetery and another four unmarked graves. Kramer leads me up and down a couple of the rows pointing out his relatives before stopping at an obelisk built for his great-grandparents, George and Catherine Bower. He eventually says this is where he will be buried as well.
As we leave the cemetery, he drives us over to where the church once stood. You can actually still see some of the foundation. He shares a rumor he’s heard since he was a boy about how it’s thought the fire started.
Kramer’s great-uncle, Vernon Bower, was friends with the infamous bank robber John Dillinger. He would drive to Indianapolis where he’d visit Dillinger and, it was said, Vernon used to keep moonshine hidden underneath the church during the 1930s. Once some members of the community caught wind of what was going on, the church was mysterious set fire and burned to the ground.
Kramer knew of my interest in the small cemeteries and asked if I’d like to see some others. He took me a few miles down the road to three more cemeteries – Tabler, Heistand and one with no name.
Kramer and other cemetery grounds keepers often go unnoticed, but they keep cemeteries — great and small — cared for to honor the dearly departed and offer solace to those left behind.
Until next time…