Residents prepare gravesites for Memorial Day weekend; keep traditions alive

MARSHALL — For so many, Memorial Day is a time for reflection, paying respects and maybe even reconnecting with friends and family members. It’s ultimately a day to recognize and honor all Americans who died while serving their county, but it has also evolved into an informal time of remembrance for others as well.

Evoking a sense of sadness for the losses endured as well as the desire to celebrate the many sacrifices made, Memorial Day is an annual holiday with a lot of meaning. Along with the attention and planning that goes into Memorial Day programs in and around the Marshall area, a lot of care is given to the local cemeteries — including the tradition of displaying flags and/or other markers at the gravesite of every veteran – for the significant occasion.

“Both Marshall cemeteries are so beautiful,” Comfrey resident Peggy Thom said. “We’re so lucky our loved ones are resting here.”

Thom and her sister, Gwen Jansen, visited the Marshall Cemetery at the intersection of North Bruce Street and Boxelder Street and the Holy Redeemer Catholic Calvary Cemetery near the intersection of East Main Street and State Highway 23.

“When I was younger, Memorial Day was a fun time to get together with some friends and have a picnic,” Thom said. “Just to get together was a lot of fun. But as I’ve grown older now, I haven’t kept that tradition alive because my family has changed. We just don’t get together like we used to. But for Memorial Day, we like to come up and decorate at the cemeteries. We still do that.”

Thom has two stillborn babies at the Marshall Cemetery. She and Jansen also have an infant sister, Patricia, grandparents and great-grandparents there as well.

At the Calvary Catholic Cemetery, Thom and Jansen, whose husband Jim died in October 2016, placed flowers and paid their respects to the late Joseph and Helen Jansen.

“They’re my husband’s parents,” Gwen Jansen said. “I’m originally from Comfrey and I was with the charter class at Southwest (now Southwest Minnesota State University). I met my husband, Jim Jansen, here in Marshall. He and his parents were native Marshallites.”

Joseph Jansen (1919-2005) served in the U.S. Army during World War II.

“He was a corporal in the Army and my husband was also in the service,” Jansen said. “(Jim) was in the Vietnam War. He was in the Army.”

Jansen and Thom said their dad was also in the military.

“Our dad was in the Navy in World War II and he (has since) passed away,” Thom said. “So this is a time to reflect back. It means a lot more to us now.”

Jansen said she’s utilized the Find A Grave website to not only locate gravesites, but also to research ancestry.

“The Find A Grave website is so informational,” she said. “I’ve found information about my ancestors there and they’ve really documented (history) with pictures of the gravestones, locations and so forth.”

As people walk through the cemeteries this weekend, they’ll not only observe the graves of countless veterans, but also young adults killed in car accidents or by suicide, along with moms and dads who died too soon. There are also people buried in the area who lived long, and hopefully fulfilling lives.

And in every cemetery throughout the area, state and beyond, there are interesting stories regarding the people buried there. There are stories that may or may not have been told. So in some ways, we are all connected.

“No matter where you go, it’s a small world,” Thom said.

Stories of the past

Nolan Meyer, a Marshall High School junior, recently completed his Eagle Scout project, which was a directory kiosk at Marshall Cemetery. Anyone visiting the cemetery now has a fairly easy way of locating a loved one among the 5,000-plus others buried there.

Along with all the names on display, the directory kiosk also includes an area that highlights interesting facts about some of the people buried at the cemetery.

“I think it’s really interesting,” Meyer said.

One hundred years ago, Luther Snapp and Earl Jackson were both killed in action during World War I. Both were originally buried in France, but after the war and at the family’s request, their bodies were brought back to Marshall.

It was reported that the funeral, held on Aug. 7, 1921, was so large that it had to be held outside on the courthouse lawn. Photos of the funeral procession can be found at the Lyon County Museum.

“I think that’s one of the things that drew me to being part of the Cemetery Board was the appreciation of how far back the history goes and all the stories that there are,” Paul Bridgland said. “Every person buried out here does have a story.”

Thomas Hicks, a veteran of the War of 1812 is buried at Marshall Cemetery. Another soldier buried there fought in four different wars — the last of which was the Civil War. George Matthews was of the Grand Army of the Republic and is buried in the area reserved for members.

“I think that’s amazing,” Thom said.

The Marshall Cemetery serves as the final resting place for 58 veterans of the Civil War, the country’s bloodiest conflict. In May 1868, Gen. John Logan declared that May 30 should become a nationwide day of commemoration for the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the recently-ended Civil War. The commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic – also known as the Union veterans’ group — called it “Decoration Day” due to the decorating of the graves for the fallen soldiers.

It wasn’t until World War I that the tradition was expanded to include those killed in all U.S. wars. Memorial Day then became a federal holiday in 1971.

A total of 51 World War I veterans are buried at Marshall Cemetery, as well as more than 150 WWII veterans. More than 40 veterans of the Korean War are also buried there, including Fred Worden and Richard Rasmussen.

As of January, there are also 16 Vietnam veterans buried at Marshall Cemetery, including Orland Tesch and James Henline, Sr.

“This is our oldest person based on date of birth,” Lyle Moseng said about Martha Gibbs. “She was 10 years old when George Washington died in 1799. So she was born about 1789. There is also a family in 1882 that lost five children in the span of a little over two weeks to Scarlet Fever.”

Marshall Cemetery was originally founded by Lake Marshall Township in 1871. The private, non-profit is operated and maintained by the Marshall Cemetery Association, which is made up of volunteer board members.

“I don’t want to get all gushy, but it’s kind of a work of love,” Moseng said. “If we didn’t care about the cemetery, we wouldn’t do it.”

While Moseng currently serves as secretary-treasurer, Bridgland serves as the president.

“The Association itself has existed for about 120 years now,” Bridgland said.

Moseng jokingly responded, saying, “We haven’t been on the board quite that long.”

After its creation in 1897, the Association received 40 acres and took over the burial. According to Bridgland, the records for the first two to three decades “leave a lot to be desired.”

“The Cemetery is old enough that it has a Potter’s Field,” he said. “It dates back to the early days. The term comes from the New Testament. Judas brought back the 30 pieces of silver after Christ was crucified and then the Jewish leader said, ‘Well, this is blood money, what do we do with it?’ And they put it toward Potter’s Field for the burial of strangers. That’s kind of where it comes from and it’s itinerants from the 1800s who are probably buried there.”

Near the Potter’s Field area is a section called Baby Hill. There are more than 115 graves in this area, most of which are infants who were stillborn or died shortly after birth.

“A lot of the babies born up there never had real markers at the time,” Bridgland said. “They just put plan rectangular slab, which over time, settled. We think it was probably a case of a young family or one with very limited resources and the intent on coming back.”

Roughly 66 of the graves on Baby Hill were unmarked until recently. Donations from community members have enabled the Marshall Cemetery Board to place simple monuments on about half of the unmarked baby graves.

“About three years ago, we were approached by a community member who’d heard about that and decided to purchase one marker as an annual Christmas thing,” Bridgland said. “We did some research and now we’re able to work with Awards Plus to use the community donations to put down a marker for less than $50.”

According to Moseng, “37 have been done so far.”