I have not been shy or quiet in my opinions about cemetery desecration. I have spoken about it, and I have written about it. Cemeteries are monuments to those who have gone before. They are places that honor the people on whose shoulders we stand, who built the towns and cities that we have taken care of since their passing.
They are places of contemplation and remembrance. Even more importantly, they should be places that command respect from those of us who walk on the grass amongst the stones. I had not thought that I’d be speaking on the subject again so soon, but I read something in the paper today that compels me to speak up once again.
I subscribe to a local newspaper called the North Scott Press that serves rural Scott County, Iowa, where I live. Today, they reported that two men with metal detectors and shovels were seen in Franklin Park, right in the middle of the city of Eldridge, Iowa. They’re scanning around, seeing what they can find, and someone calls the police. The police come out and talk to the men. As soon as the cops leave, so do the guys with the detectors. So what’s the problem? The problem is that the two men are digging up a cemetery.
To understand, we have to step back in the Way Back Machine to the 19th century. Eldridge is a small, primarily agriculture driven community. Some residents back then were of the Presbyterian faith, and they determined to build their own church right in town so that they didn’t have to travel far.
Rural travel in the middle of the 19th century was a sketchy affair at times. You travelled in a buggy or on horseback for the most part, exposed to the elements. Even if you were fortunate enough to travel in a covered conveyance like a stagecoach, the poor driver was still exposed to the elements. And in Iowa, you get every kind of element – rain, snow, sleet, and hail. You also had wind, heat, and cold to deal with.
The dirt roads that you plodded along were often bumpy and unpleasant to ride on (horses and buckboards generally didn’t come equipped with an air-ride feature). They could also be extremely muddy and almost impossible to get through. Deep snows could also make the roads impassable. Nasty Iowa thunderstorms exposed you to the odd tornado, but, even more likely and just as dangerous was a stray lightning bolt that could hit you. Suffice it to say, the closer to home you were, the more comfortable things would probably be.
So, in the 1860’s, the fine people of Eldridge erected the Eldridge Presbyterian Church. A cemetery was made just beside it, and several parishioners were buried there. The church lasted for a while, but it never really did overly well. By the early 1900’s it was just an empty building. In 1918, a tornado came through the area and wiped out the building, as well, leaving only the graves.
Later, the decision was made to move the headstones elsewhere. However, the bodies were not moved. The city knew that they couldn’t build on the site with all those graves, so they turned the area into a park and left it alone. Over time and subsequent generations, the fact that there were graves there started to be forgotten.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Recently, the knowledge resurfaced in the public eye. Older people remembered that there were, and told the city that. Younger people weren’t sure. So, to settle the argument, the city of Eldridge contacted a trained archaeologist with the University of Iowa. They came out and used a special technology called ground penetrating radar to see if there was anything there or not. Sure enough, they found evidence of several dozen graves there.
Almost from the moment the archaeologist arrived to do their radar soundings, this was big news. The local newspaper, the North Scott Press, covered the minor drama as it unfolded. Now that the existence of the graves has been proven beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt, the city of Eldridge is deciding what they will do with the site. They have the best intentions and are seeking to preserve the memory of the dead buried there.
And now we have those unscrupulous individuals showing up at the park, seeking only to take from the dead, not preserve them.
Let the Dead Rest
Honestly, I have no idea what they hoped to find. Perhaps they watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, read a book on alternative history, and decided that they were going to find the Ark of the Covenant buried out there in Franklin Park. But that’s probably not what they were hoping.
At best, what they were looking to do was find a few older artifacts, dig them up, and keep them as souvenirs. In the worst case, they intended to sell off what they found for a minor profit. Either one is unacceptable. What is left in a cemetery is meant to be there to preserve the memory of those there, in either their accomplishments or who they were.
There are places all over the United States where it is perfectly acceptable to go looking for underground souvenirs, but not in a cemetery. Leave what is there for the dead. If you find something by happenstance, get in touch with authorities, hand it over to them, and hope that it will be repatriated to the cemetery at a future date.
One day, most of us will be interred in a one cemetery or another. Most of us will have a headstone or marker put up, either by ourselves or by our families. This is a remembrance, a letter to the living world that has already moved on after our death that we existed, that we mattered. Regardless of whether that stone is on top of our earthly remains or not, the purpose remains the same. Even if that stone is moved away, our memory remains etched in granite.
So if you find out one day that there is a cemetery somewhere, but no stones, please don’t go looking for souvenirs. Leave the dead to rest in peace. Have respect, and go dig elsewhere.
Ridolfi, Mark. “Scavengers found in Franklin Park.” North Scott Press, June 7, 2017.
Ridolfi, Mark. “More than 40 people buried in Eldridge park.” North Scott Press, May 31, 2017.
“Early Churches of Rural Scott County Prior to 1900.” Scott County Historical Society.