Keith Childress dipped his handbrush into a bucket of water, scrubbing Kyle’s headstone clean.
“I have to clean some stuff up before I can do anything else,” he said just before noon Sunday. Inside the Durham Cemetery on Indiana 63, U.S. flags lined the markers of veterans along a well-groomed lawn.
Childress, father of Sgt. Kyle W. Childress, 29, who died Jan. 21, 2005, while serving in Iraq, brought flowers and other displays for his son’s grave. And he noted that friends and family likewise keep the marker well-maintained. “There’s no excuse for not doing it today,” he said on the eve of Memorial Day.
But when it comes to rural cemeteries, families and trustees who care seem to make all the difference.
Driving into Hull Cemetery on Curry Drive, wobbly stones catch visitors’ eyes, and further up the lane, crooked, leaning markers appear ready to topple down the hill into some that are already broken and crumbling.
One grave marker is buried inside a treeline on the cemetery’s edge, completely invisible from the overgrowth.
“We’re going to go get them one,” Angie Chapman Donna of Riley said upon realizing no flags were at her father’s or brother’s graves there.
The grave of her father, Fred Lewis Chapman, is marked only by a wooden cross and the flowers Donna and her husband, James, brought Sunday afternoon. Both said they were surprised no flags were placed at her father’s or brother’s graves. “I thought they did that for all veterans,” she said, noting the U.S. Army service dates on her brother James Chapman’s stone.
Lost Creek Township Trustee Rick Long was busy Friday afternoon, placing flags along the entrances of cemeteries within his district. While most cemeteries in the county are well-maintained, he said, the struggle is finding those controlled by families and churches before there’s no one left to care for them.
Such was the case at “Patterson Cemetery.”
On the north side of U.S. 40, just outside Seelyville, a white sign reading “Patterson Cemetery” now stands above a green wire fence. Drivers pass it and the dozen graves there every day.
“I didn’t even know this was here,” Long said, recalling his taking office five years ago and learning of the dilapidated bunch of broken gravesites there, one dating back to July 2, 1839.
Long saw that several of the markers contained the name Patterson, and after making some calls around the area, he found an elderly survivor of that family living in Brazil. After explaining the situation to her, Long said the survivor readily agreed to hand over the cemetery to the township. “This has only been about five years ago,” he said, standing inside the neatly fenced off grove. “We take care of 11 of them,” he added, noting there are others remaining unmarked and unknown throughout the district.
Just outside Seelyville, off Milner and Main streets, Long walked through the yard of a new brick home, back into the woods where the “Cheek Cemetery” remains fenced off. The family that owns the home has no relationship to the cemetery, he explained, adding they keep a gate closed for privacy at their choosing. But the “Cheek Cemetery” itself is maintained by the township on a small landlocked parcel there.
Long placed flags marking the graves of two Civil War veterans there. Lemuel Jones, who served in the 156th Indiana Infantry, lies buried in those woods next to his wife and daughter, Isabelle Jones, whose headstone reads “Mother.”
Several feet away, a barely legible stone bears the title “Sgt.” before a name, as well as “4th Indiana Cavalry.”
Long explained that old family cemeteries such as these often end up abandoned after generations of children move away. If the township learns of them, they take them over, but some, he said, are tough to find. Whether or not a family wants to spend money repairing their ancestors’ stones is a whole other question.
But legally, the moving or disturbance of a grave is a serious and complicated matter, he said. In the Patterson Cemetery, and others, the state had to be notified of upgrades because of so few headstones remaining in place. Diggers are used to check to make sure coffins aren’t buried on top of each other or broken into, he said.
But how nice a stone remained in 2010 probably wasn’t the biggest of concerns for Eleazer Tobey on the 22nd day of September, 1845, when he died. About 100 feet north of U.S. 40 on Chamberlain Road, Tobey is buried inside the “Baker Cemetery” with a grave marker documenting his birth in January 1775, a year before America was even America.
But just in case he wondered, 165 years later, he can rest easy knowing that his cemetery is still being cared for.
Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.