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If Tombstones Could Talk

Just, Carol."If Tombstones Could Talk." North Star Chapter Newsletter 30, no. 3: 10-11 September 2005.

Reprinted with permission of Carol Just and the North Star Chapter Newsletter


As a child I roamed the cemeteries near our farm in LaMoure County, ND, always wondering about the stories of those buried there. I placed fresh picked prairie wildflowers at the graves of small children and the adult graves that never seemed to get any attention, mentally calculating their birth and death dates, translating that data into stories. Children can have a wild imagination, but even now, decades later, when I walk into a cemetery, the voices begin chattering in my head.
Carol just walking and talking through the cemetary.

Over the years, interest in my pioneer German-Russian heritage took me to the rural churches and cemeteries of my ancestors, often with my father, an uncle or aunt in tow. They supplied detail that only family lore can provide. I became a fixture in county courthouses as I pored over Clerk of Court and Register of Deed documents and I relied on oral interviews with great-aunts and uncles (the children of my emigrant ancestors) to help connect the dots. Most of them kindly let me page through their family photo albums and bibles, allowing me full access and permission to copy anything I wanted. I learned that photographs were great memory triggers for my interviewees, bringing to the surface memories of past events that they hadn’t thought about in years; memories that may have been buried with them had I not been in the right place at the right time. That process “blew life” into my family history as I matched the names on the tombstones to the stories and photographs that were shared with me.

In 2005, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Wishek, McIntosh County, ND, has been celebrating 100 years of continuous worship. In the last five decades, many rural Lutheran churches within a 20 mile radius found they could no longer keep their doors open and opted to merge with St. Luke’s. The congregation saw fit to honor each merging church with their own special Sunday celebration arranged for and orchestrated by descendants of the honored congregation.

I descend from two of the merged rural congregations: St. Andrew (Andreas Gemeinde), the “mother church,” and Peace Lutheran (Friedens Gemeinde) one of four “daughter” churches. Their special Sundays were in early May, 2005. To my delight, I was invited to lead the “Cemetery Walk,” a journey through time as told by the cemetery markers.

This opportunity to review my decades-old research was a trip down my memory lane. Paging through notes from my interviews with first and second generation children of the prairie, interviews I conducted in my early twenties, brought back sights and sounds that I had forgotten: the cadence of their accent-laced voices, the smell of sausage and kraut or simmering borscht, fresh-from-the-oven kuchen, even homemade Schnaps. Their droll sense of humor and the matter-of-fact way they answered my endless questions, without self-pity or exaggeration, just the facts, stays with me today. The stories were there, they were simply waiting for someone to listen.

Poring over church records as I prepared for my presentations, I did a cursory count and came up with more than fifty relatives buried in the two cemeteries. No wonder the chatter in my head is especially loud when I’m there. Sixteen are great-great, great, and grandparents. Twenty-one more are great-uncles, great aunts, aunts and uncles. And at least ten members of my family tree are buried in the children’s sections. While some of them lived to a ripe old age, others died young from common realities of pioneer and rural life; epidemics, farm accidents, child birth. In Friedens cemetery alone, there are 22 children under the age of one year buried there. My Uncle Otto lost his life in Europe in the final months of WWII, less than 100 miles from the village his great-grandparents left when they immigrated to Russia in 1816. His remains are buried in the American Cemetery in Luxembourg, but his family placed a marker in St Andrew’s cemetery to keep his memory close.

The names on the cemetery markers read like the roster of the founding members of the Glueckstal Mother Colonies. (Glueckstal, Neudorf, Bergdorf, and Kassel) in Russia two hundred years ago. McIntosh County, Dakota Territory, opened for homestead in 1884 and was settled by descendants of those early Black Sea colonies.

The earliest markers in St. Andrew’s cemetery, dating back to 1894, belong to a 49-yr-old mother and to three small children from three different emigrant families. They were casualties of the raw, unrelenting prairie with its extreme heat and cold, isolation and illnesses that even the respected Brauchere, gifted healers trained in South Russia, found beyond the realm of their healing ability. A small pox epidemic in the winter of 1898/99 claimed many on the prairie including three children in one family in three short weeks. My great-grandparents didn’t know what hit them, their family suddenly cut in half. The influenza epidemic of 1918 [the Spanish Flu]brought many more new graves to these rural cemeteries, and the diphtheria epidemic of 1923 cut to the core, claiming my grandfather, Karl, and three of his daughters, as well as his sister, Christina, and her three sons.

Iron crosses are a distinct cultural art form of the Germans from Russia. Most examples appear in cemeteries affiliated with the Catholic Church. However, the oldest marker in Friedens Lutheran Cemetery is a large, ornate, hand-forged iron cross labeled Gottlieb Dockter. An emigrant from Neudorf, Dockter spoke several languages and served as the Clerk of Court (Schreiber) for his village until he journeyed to the U.S. with his family in 1899. With many sons to do the farm work, Dockter often roamed the prairie for days on horseback, always delighted when he connected with others from the Glueckstal colonies. One day he stopped at a sod house near Beaver Creek and encountered a childhood friend, Johann Heine. As a young man, Heine migrated south of Neudorf to Klostitz, in Bessarabia. Their reunion in McIntosh County resulted in the marriage of Heine’s daughter, Katharina, and Dockter’s son, Jacob. Mergers of that kind were common in the early years on the prairie. As for the iron cross - the artist left no identification, but the fact that Dockter’s son George was a well-known blacksmith makes the case for a son creating a tribute to his father.

The iron cross of Carol Just's Great Great Grandfather Gottlieb Dockter.

In the middle of all those cemetery markers with German surnames is a marker for a lone Norwegian emigrant by the name of Frank Olson. His homestead along Beaver Creek was surrounded by Germans from Russia. Olson married Carolina Heine, but left her a widow shortly after the marriage. He was buried on the homestead next to his father-in-law, Johann Heine. In 1910, both graves were exhumed, the remains moved to nearby St. Andrews cemetery, when a county road was platted in the path of their resting place.

In German-Russian culture, the cemetery (Friedhof) is a place of peace and dignity, located near the church building. As a migrating people, death was a reality of life. Assured of a life hereafter, Germans from Russia grieved the loss, but placed their hope on the promise that they would meet again in paradise.

St. Andrew’s, the tall white church, served as a “Beacon on the Prairie.” When a church member died, the pastor or an elder of the congregation tolled the church bell the number of years the deceased lived on earth honoring the life of the congregant and as a vehicle to notify the community, a practice that came with the emigrants in South Russia and continues at St. Luke’s today.

In the early years before funeral homes were established, the deceased was laid out in the family parlor, usually in a hand-crafted wooden casket. Relatives and friends kept vigil by the casket until the funeral service.

Funerals were taken seriously and attended by all in the community. Children were not sheltered from the grim reality of death. The procession from the sanctuary to the cemetery was a solemn one, sometimes with flower girls leading the pallbearers to the grave site. A lone voice began a graveside song, joined by all in attendance. “Wo Findet die Seele die Heimat, die Ruh” (Where does the soul find its home, its rest?), or “So Nimm Den Meine Hande” (Lord, take my hand and lead me), were common choices for adults, “Muede bin ich, geh zu Ruh,” (Weary am I, to rest I go) was a lullaby often sung at the grave of a child. Some of these traditions survive on the prairie in McIntosh County today.

As I told my stories at the celebrations in May, I realized that my years of interviews with family elders, the many cemetery visits and the hours of research in dusty courthouses were simply part of my journey. I am the family scribe. After my presentations, I collected another half dozen stories from 3rd and 4th generation descendants of the early members of the prairie churches. They approached me with a modest eagerness and I humbly accepted their stories. Truth is, they were simply waiting for someone to listen.

Carol Just
St. Louis Park, MN
August 2005

 

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