The following article was originally published in The Sentinel, Centralia, Illinois, on September 3, 2006.
It is reprinted here with their permission.
ST. ROSE (AP) – Elsie and Louis Holtgrave were inseparable, married more than four decades before Louis died in November 1981. Elsie went to her grave this February.
While so together in life, the two are far apart in death, buried eight rows from each other in a tiny parish cemetery in this Southern Illinois township where loved ones spending eternity side by side are the exception, not the norm.
In St. Rose Cemetery, tradition spanning several generations holds that the dead are buried in the order that they die.
“The way you drop is the way you flop,” says Tim Rehkemper, a 45-year-old member of the church committee that helps tend to the graveyard. “If something happened to me tomorrow and my wife would die three weeks later, there’d be somebody between us. That’s just the way it is, and I don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future.”
TRAGIC AFTERMATH – When five members of the Vonder Haar family were killed in a traffic accident on Interstate 44 near the Six Flags Park at Eureka, Mo., on July 31, 2000, they were buried in five adjacent grave sites in the St. Rose Parish Cemetery. This is the exception, not the rule, however, in a cemetery where burials are chronological.
Family plots? Forget it, unless married couples happen to die the same day, assuring their spots next to each other in this graveyard of one-time parishioners of the 138-year-old St. Rose Catholic Church. In a few cases, a person’s cremated remains have been scattered or interred in their loved one’s plot.
The cemetery has a striking uniformity. Crafted by a monument maker in nearby Breese, tombstones are white and waist-high, topped by a carved-out cross and, increasingly in recent decades, featuring small, oval portraits of the people laid to rest there.
Some in the parish have politely suggested that the rules be changed so they could be buried next to their spouse someday. But around this community about 50 miles east of St. Louis, old traditions die hard.
“It’s really kind of neat that everybody is buried in chronological order. It’s been fine, really,” says Dennis Holtgrave, the 65-year-old son of the late Holtgraves. Before their deaths, he says, his parents also were fine with the arrangement.
It’s unclear how many cemeteries in Illinois and elsewhere are laid out by dates of death rather than relations.
The Illinois Cemetery and Funeral Home Association says it has no such details statewide, where most of the some 6,600 graveyards are family or religiously held. And of the 3,500 or so graveyards his International Cemetery and Funeral Association represents nationwide, Bob Fells says he’s never heard of chronological burials denying someone the opportunity to be buried next to a spouse.
“I’d have to think it’s fairly rare where you’d deliberately split up a married couple in grave spaces,” said Fells, the trade group’s external chief operating officer and general counsel.
In a community settled in the 19th century by German immigrants, the graveyard’s earliest monument appears to be that of Joseph Bonhoff, just 21 months old when he died in 1863 [sic - see note*]. The first adult was buried there seven years later in an older cemetery section where many of the tombstones are severely weathered, making them mossy and often hardly legible.
Some folks consider the graveyard’s layout convenient, with anyone with a rough idea of what year a person died quickly able to find that person’s plot. Others may find it challenging, taking clues from grave markers that generally list the dead person’s immediate relatives and searching the cemetery for that person’s kin.
“That does make it interesting, the novelty of it,” says Marvin Tebbe, a 48-year-old man who plans to someday be buried here.
Tebbe’s sister, Judy, was just 23 when she died in a car wreck, devastating his already ailing mother, Florence Tebbe. “It was tough for my mom to have any of her children die before her,” Marvin Tebbe says.
Just 10 weeks after Judy Tebbe died, so did her mother. The two are buried in the St. Rose cemetery, separated by grave sites of two unrelated souls who passed away in between. Four rows from there is the grave of Marvin Tebbe’s father, Ferdinand, who was 81 when he died in March 2000.
When it comes to such separation of graves, Marvin Tebbe shrugs, “this is how it is; people understand that and just deal with it.”
There are rare exceptions, typically out of tragedy. The cemetery is now home to five members of the Vonder Haar family killed July 31, 2001 [sic - death was 31 Jul 2000], when their minivan careened across a freeway near St. Louis and into the path of a semi rig hauling 43,000 pounds of steel.
Those victims, who died near the Six Flags amusement park where they were headed, are buried side by side: 4 year-old Brady, then 6-year-old Melinda, 7-year-old Travis, and their parents, Tanya and Daniel. Each grave marker has a color photo of the plot’s occupant, with Travis shown smiling in his Little League uniform.
“It is almost like a military cemetery, how everything lines up,” said Jerry Lager, maker of the markers his company has been supplying to the cemetery since his grandfather founded the business in nearby Breese in 1914. The graveyard and its names – Gebke, Grapperhaus, Kampwerth – “also shows the strong German heritage, the fact that they’ve stayed with that tradition for so long.”
The burial practice has produced only minor quibbling, the priest of the roughly 1,100 parishioner St. Rose parish says. The Rev. Edward Schaefer says the matter again surfaced recently as the cemetery nears its expansion into two more acres the church bought two years ago.
“It comes up, especially for the ladies. They want to know if we’ve thought about changing the style of the tombstones or the practice,” Schaefer says. “I said, ‘I’m not going to be here forever, so if you want to change it, say something.’ At the end of the discussion, they say we’ve been doing it for 135 years, so let’s continue.”
*Per Nancy Moss, Joseph Bonhoff was the son of Caspar and Katherine (nee Clement) Bonhoff. The baptism and death records show he was born April 23, 1871 and died January 31, 1873. The headstone lists he was born April 23, 1861 and died January 31, 1863.