When I was a kid, I remember my Dad taking me to City Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa. A big history buff, Dad used to take me to all kinds of cemeteries while doing family history, or just some personal research on something.
One of the older cemeteries in Scott County, City Cemetery is, by comparison to some of the behemoth burial places out in the world, relatively modest in size. Many of the tombstones are from the 19th century, with all the careful and grand designs from that era. It’s truly a place of peace in the middle of the city.
As we came near the sextant’s shack toward the center of the grounds, a very unusual sight met my young eyes – fragments of broken tombstones. I mean, not just a few, either. There was probably the equivalent of ten or more whole stones, their fragmented bodies carefully stacked along the wall of the shack. They were, or had been, small and rectangular, made from white marble. It was obvious someone had taken a sledgehammer to them.
This was the first time that I came into personal contact with such destructive vandalism.
Over the years, City Cemetery has been vandalized several times, the latest being last year. Tombstones were knocked over, and one tombstone was apparently so appealing to the perpetrators that they decided to take it with them. Unfortunately, that’s almost always the kind of damage that vandals do in cemeteries. Even more unfortunately, it’s the worst kind of damage.
For genealogists and historians, a tombstone can give a wealth of information. This can include names, birth dates, death dates, marriage dates, the names of a spouse and/or children, and sometimes random biographical information. They are a record of a person’s life written in stone, thus making them an important source of historical knowledge.
For a family member or a loved one, a tombstone is a last testament that a person lived. Without any kind of record or grave marker, a person’s name can easily disappear from the historical record within a generation or two. That marker is a declaration to the living world that this was a person, that they lived and died, had experiences, and touched on the lives surrounding them. Each one is a monument to the life it details.
When a person decides to come along and wreck a tombstone, they’re breaking all of this. Every time an act like this occurs, that perpetrator is destroying a piece of history. And it’s more common than you might think.
In June 2016, a small cemetery in Honey Creek, Iowa, was seemingly torn apart by vandals. Several tombstones there were knocked over or broken. One, apparently, was even shot! It was hard to determine who was buried where, it was so bad.
In 2013, it was discovered that someone had been going through Springdale Cemetery in Clinton, Iowa knocking down tombstones. Cameras were set up to discover the culprit, and they eventually revealed a young man maliciously throwing a headstone to the ground.
In November 2014, a person drove a truck through a cemetery near Bondurant, Iowa, destroying four tombstones in the process.
Earlier that same year, over sixty headstones were knocked over in Oakhill Cemetery in Linn County, Iowa. Damages were estimated at upwards of $3000. It was later discovered that a few children, aged six to seven, were behind the issue.
As heartbreaking as having that many tombstones knocked over is, at least you can take comfort that they were very young children and probably had no idea what they were doing was wrong. But not every vandal is a teenager or a child.
In April of 1992, some all-terrain vehicle riders were travelling near Hickory Hill, a rural pioneer cemetery east of Charlotte, Iowa. As they rode past, they noticed that one of the graves had been dug up. The Clinton County Sheriff’s Department was notified and began a prompt investigation.
A twin grave, belonging to a husband and wife within the Illeman family plot, had been completely opened. Although the vaults were clearly visible and the handles to them had been uncovered, neither had been opened.
Investigators discovered that twine had been run between the gravestone and some nearby trees. Not wanting to attract unwanted attention, the perpetrators could hang blankets or some other covering around the site to help keep their work light hidden. The perpetrators had left muddy footprints on the vaults themselves, and a broken shovel that was assumed to have been used in the excavation was found in the area. And why did someone do all of this? The Sheriff’s Department had theories, but no strong leads.
It might be a case of grave robbing. Perhaps the grave had been excavated because the plot looked like the biggest and most important one there, making it the most likely to have money and jewelry. Surviving relatives of the Illemans however, informed investigators that the deceased couple hadn’t had much money and there probably wouldn’t be anything of significant value buried with them.
Simple vandalism was another possibility. Although there weren’t any gravestones broken or knocked over, smaller objects from the monuments, such as crosses, had been seemingly removed. However, the grave was about six feet deep and ten feet wide. The conditions were muddy, and care was taken to hide their activities from the road. Wouldn’t it have just been easier to break a few stones and walk away?
The last possible answer that the Sheriff’s Department offered was the most sinister by far: a Satanic cult. A Satanic holiday where new initiates became members of their covens fell very close to the time when the graves were opened. Could it have been that cultists were digging up the bodies to use the remains in their rituals?
In the end, it was all speculation with no clear reason. No one was ever caught for the crime. The graves were refilled and things returned to normal. After a while, the whole incident was forgotten by many.
A gravestone is a monument to the deceased, one last physical reminder to the world that they existed. In my opinion, deliberately wrecking such a marker is akin to saying that their life didn’t matter. It’s a terrible thing to do.
Cemeteries are places where we can remember all of those who have gone before us. Some of those buried there are beloved relatives, while others are people who pioneered the world that we now live in. Cemeteries serve as a monument to our collective and individual past. As such, these sacred places are worthy of our respect, and continued care and attention.