Isaac's Journal: Finding His Grave at a Country Cemetery

Reader Contribution by The Mother Earth News Editors
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This story is from Lyn Fenwick, submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.

To read more of Isaac’s 19th century journal entries see Lyn’s blog.

In early days, when bodies were not embalmed, funerals were held within a day or two of death. Town cemeteries were too far away to travel by wagon or buggy, so communities created country cemeteries. The land was often donated, sometimes by the family who first needed to bury one of their own. These country cemeteries dot the Kansas landscape, some containing only a few old graves, others still in active use.

About four miles north of Isaac’s timber claim was Neeland’s Cemetery. It had originally been named the Livingston Cemetery for the fledgling town of Livingston, but many people referred to it by the name of the family who had donated the land and today that is the name by which it is still known. Neeland’s Cemetery began when a workman for Neeland’s Ranch died and was buried in their pasture. Following the burial, the family donated three acres for a neighborhood cemetery. I had visited Neeland’s with my parents when I was a child, and I remembered the interesting old gravestones I had seen there, many of them dating back to the 1800s. 

Gravestones are genealogy records chiseled in stone. One particular stone in Neeland’s tells the tragic story of the collapse of a sod dugout’s roof during heavy rains. Nick Davison and his wife Mary were early settlers in the community, and soon after they arrived, a daughter they named Beuna Vista was born. Less than five years later, another daughter was born, and she was named Bessie. Eighteen days after her birth, the weigh
t of the rain soaked sod roof caused the ridge pole to snap, and the collapsed mud smothered the baby and her four-year-old sister. Memorialized on the beautiful stone are these two sisters and a third daughter whose life was also brief. Eight sons were born to Nick and Mary, but no other daughters.

Neeland’s continues to be the final resting place for departed loved ones today. A symbolic modern stone tells its own tragic story of a young father who died in an accident, leaving behind his widow and three young children, the tragedy depicted with a pair of hands tenderly holding three little birds.

When I began searching for Isaac’s grave, I considered several possibilities. The closest cemetery to Isaac’s homestead was Naron cemetery in Pratt County, only about two miles from his home and the burial place of several of his neighbors. St. John was a possibility, because it was the county seat, where Isaac shopped, banked, marketed his crops, and attended farmers’ meetings. With no family living close to him, it seemed reasonable that he might have chosen the county seat. Farmington Cemetery in Macksville is where my ancestors are buried, and Isaac was friendly with all of them, along with some other neighbors buried there. And, there was Neeland’s.

Isaac mentioned several funerals in his journal, with most of the burials in either Naron or Neeland’s. His probate records include early claims submitted by the mortician and the casket maker, but only in the final accounting when his estate closed did the three dollar expense of his burial plot finally appear, with no indication of the specific cemetery. Because there was no claim for a gravestone, I assumed that Isaac was probably buried in an unmarked grave. The necessity of holding funerals soon after death meant that bodies were rarely transported any great distance, so I decided to begin my search at Naron and Neeland’s, which were the two closest cemeteries.

The na
mes of those buried in Naron are available online, but I found no listing for Isaac. There was no complete listing online for the Neeland’s Cemetery, so I began inquiring who the members of the cemetery board were. With just a few phone calls, I reached one of the board members to ask if there was a record of Isaac being buried there. He was. Both she and I assumed his was one of several old graves in that cemetery that are unmarked, but she described the location of his grave, according to their records, and my husband and I went to see what we could find. 

It was a cold December day, and I had been told that Isaac was buried in the fourth row, the second lot to the south of the driveway. We counted the rows, but in an old cemetery it is often difficult to determine exactly what placement of stones represents a row. We settled on what we thought was the correct row and I began pacing off fifteen feet from the edge of the tire ruts that serve as a driveway, since she had said that the lots were fifteen feet square. After fifteen steps I stopped, disappointed to see an empty space in front of me. “It should be about here,” I told my husband. “I guess Isaac is buried somewhere in this empty area.”

“Look beside you,” he told me. To my left and about a half a pace behind me, there was Isaac’s stone — a simple square column with engraving on the top to resemble a fringed cloth spread over the column. The carved letters were worn by age, but they clearly read, “I.B. Werner, Died March 21, 1895, Aged 51.” The next day we returned with a spray of holly to decorate Isaac’s grave, and each Memorial when we remember family with flowers, we stop by Neeland’s Cemetery to place an arrangement on Isaac’s grave. Perhaps his neighbors brought flowers to Isaac’s grave for a while after his death, but for decades he had been a forgotten man. At last, Isaac is remembered.

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