Des Moines Register
Des Moines, Iowa
Oct. 19, 2011
Graveyard gives up bones as age, erosion take toll
(Photo in photo album a the left. There's a 2nd photo of a human
femur coming up out of the ground that I didn't include.)
LEHIGH, Ia. -- Somebody's bones are sticking out of the mud in a ravine near here, waiting for authorities to figure out who should pick them up.
The bones used to be buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery south of town. Heavy rains in 2009 washed away the wall of a neighboring ravine, and a strip of the oldest part of the cemetery slid into the maw. Several headstones and at least one body tumbled down with the soil.
A concrete burial vault still protrudes from the bank near the top of the ravine. A 5-inch-high hole in the dirt shows where animals have been digging. A few yards down the steep slope, bits of rusty hardware, possibly from an old coffin, sit next to what appears to be the end
of a human leg bone. A couple of pieces of other bones peek out from under fallen leaves.
"It's just a heck of a mess," said Phil Berglund, a Yell Township trustee who oversees the cemetery's maintenance. Berglund said his little township can't afford to stabilize the ravine, and a proposal to move graves away from the edge is snarled in bureaucratic red tape. "This is a problem that is beyond us," he said.
A state archaeologist's staff member visited the ravine and took pictures of bones two years ago. But records indicate she couldn't determine if they were old enough to be her office's responsibility, so she apparently left them there, her boss said this week. She contacted county officials and gave them a phone number for the state health department, but the problem remains unresolved.
Oak Grove is one of thousands of little cemeteries scattered throughout Iowa's countryside. As often is the case, many of its older grave markers
represent families that long ago moved away and lost touch with their farming roots. Experts said many old cemeteries lack consistent upkeep, but they said it's unusual to have the problems go so far that bones are left lying on the ground.
Karen Long-Fladeboe was appalled by the situation when she and her sister visited their ancestors' graves at the cemetery a couple of weeks ago. The women took pictures of the fallen gravestones and of what appeared to be a leg bone sticking up out of the mud. Long-Fladeboe, who lives in St. Cloud, Minn., called local, county and state officials, who all told her they sympathized but couldn't do anything.
"Everybody says, `It's not my responsibility, it's somebody else's,' " she said. She was stunned to hear that the bones apparently have been exposed more than two years. "It's disrespectful. I can't imagine why it's taken somebody from Minnesota who's never been there before to say something about
Actually, Long-Fladeboe wasn't the first.
Berglund, the township trustee, said he's heard from several upset cemetery visitors, but none were from the township or would have helped foot the bill for stabilizing the ravine. While he spoke to a reporter at his home last week, another out-of-towner called him to complain about it. The woman used the phrase "horror house" to describe what she'd heard of the situation. Berglund told her the matter was caught in legal limbo and was out of his hands.
After the phone call, Berglund said he's never sure what to tell folks about the cemetery problem. "It's hard to satisfy people. On something like this, some people want to blame us, the trustees," he said. Berglund, 77, is a farmer who is busy harvesting his crops this time of year. He noted that he makes $28.30 a year as a township trustee, which includes oversight of three cemeteries. "I shouldn't be doing this job," he said. "You just
catch hell for something you didn't do. I just stand there and listen."
The township's population has dwindled to about 15 farming families, he said. Few, if any, have any kin in the Oak Grove Cemetery. The township has about $10,000 in annual tax revenues, which cover fire protection and mowing of the cemeteries.
The Oak Grove Cemetery covers a few acres in a peaceful area bordered by a cornfield. It is neatly mowed, and several fresh graves near the front show that it is still being used. The damage is toward the back, where the oldest graves are.
Berglund said the township pushed some dirt into the ravine at one point, but that failed to stop the erosion. He said he asked in vain for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a more extensive project, which could easily cost more than $100,000.
Berglund then sought help from the Webster County attorney's office, which applied for permits from the state
archaeologist's office to move graves away from the ravine. But the archaeologist's office recently notified the county that it can't issue the permits because the graves aren't at least 150 years old. An assistant county attorney said she probably will wind up seeking a court order to move the graves.
Someone retrieved several gravestones from the ravine and set them at the back edge of the cemetery. Some of them indicate the graves were nearly old enough to fall under the state archaeologist's authority. One, for a 2-year-old girl named Nellie Beem, says she was buried in 1867, which is 144 years ago.
Other markers are so worn that there's no telling how old they are. Berglund said cemetery records were lost in a fire long ago, so no one is sure when the first burial was.
Berglund said he thought someone from the state archaeologist's office had taken away bones for safekeeping at one point after the mudslide. But State
Archaeologist John Doershuk said this week he doesn't think that happened.
"It becomes one of those things of, `Whose purview is it?' " he said, adding that the staff member is currently out of the country and can't be reached for comment. When asked if the bones lying in the ravine now are the same ones his staff photographed in 2009, he said, "It's very possible." He added that his office would look again at the matter.
Webster County Emergency Management Coordinator Tony Jorgensen said he was aware of the problem, but had no money to help fix it. "I feel terrible for the families. It's a terrible situation," he said. "I would have liked to have done more."
Dr. Daniel Cole, the county medical examiner, said he never heard of the issue until this week. A couple of sheriff's deputies went out to check, and they reported they couldn't find any bones, he said Tuesday. He said he has no role in the matter, because any bones in the
ravine clearly came from a cemetery, not a crime scene. "Somebody needs to do something, but it's not really the jurisdiction of this office."
Polly Carver-Kimm, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Public Health, said no one contacted her agency about the matter until Long-Fladeboe called to complain last week. She said her department apparently would have no role in the matter because the bones were found in a cemetery. "It's a cemetery issue," she said.