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Invite Your Ancestors to Your Family Reunion!

by Edith Wagner
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Bring the Party to Them
Family reunions can be an excellent opportunity to visit ancestors in the cemetery or other family landmarks. It's a chance to physically maintain these emotional family centers and pass on the history and stories that make our ancestors seem more real to us.

Include your ancestors in your family reunions. Go to them. The importance of cemeteries, homesteads, and other family landmarks to reunions is one of enormous fascination. They are places where proximity to history and ancestors is compelling. Cemeteries can be of particularly high interest for the children. A good example is the Iddings Family Reunion.

When 250 descendants of George Washington's right-hand man, General "Mad Anthony" Wayne, had their first Iddings Family Reunion they didn't mind that their ancestor was described as "mad." The three-day family celebration took place in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, the heart of the family home that dates back nearly 300 years. A tour included visits to Iddings family homes, Wayne's birthplace and cemeteries. The focus was to engage children with Wayne's colorful history. They were fascinated. They saw one of Wayne's graves at Old St. David's Church cemetery. According to historical records, Wayne's bones are buried in the family plot at St. David's, but his flesh was buried in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1796. The kids thought details of Wayne's interment were definitely "cool."

One family of Killoughs was massacred by outlaws in 1838. Their burial spot outside Jacksonville, Texas, was declared a state historical site during the 1930s when a monument was erected by WPA workers. Almost twenty years later, John A. Killough was appalled to find monument grounds overgrown and hardly distinguishable from the surrounding forest. While clearing the cemetery, the reunion idea was born and the first one was organized in 1955.

According to Juanita Killough Urbach, a procession on reunion Sunday winds along a narrow blacktop road to the Killough monument. At this hallowed spot they annually listen to State Historian and honorary Killough, Jack Moore, recite the story of the Killough massacre as he has for many years. Upkeep of the cemetery is the responsibility of the family corporation whose perpetual fund assures its future. With such foresight and enthusiasm, Killough history is sure to survive.

Reunions Take Cemetery Responsibility

Responsibility for cemetery upkeep, maintenance, restoration and repair is among many families' reunion activities. Cemetery projects can also include research, recording data, mapping and tombstone photos. Some families use the occasion of the reunion to clean and plant gravesites and plots while others raise funds to hire cemetery services.

Joan Sandal Tempers of Topeka, Kansas, says her family has held one-day annual reunions in Nebraska for over sixty years. The family published its genealogy and financially supports a private cemetery on the site of a Swedish Lutheran church founded by four ancestors. The Irwin Family Reunion tradition began in 1878 when adult children of Peter Irwin, son of Nathaniel Irwin, met to clean up the Old Seceder Cemetery, Downington, Pennsylvania. Men trimmed grass and repaired the wall and tombstones. Women and children prepared a picnic. According to C. Patricia Irwin, Lesley Irwin reunions today are a mix of families raised in the tradition and newcomers. Care of the Old Seceder Cemetery is still a priority. Dues of $2 per adult are used for cemetery maintenance and family records preservation.

Touring Cemeteries, Family Homesteads, and Old Haunts

Cemeteries are included in many reunion tour itineraries. The Maxon family enjoyed several exciting transcontinental reunions, then returned to their hometown, Olean, New York, for a nostalgic look at their past. According to Karen Maxon, they visited the homestead, alma maters, old haunts and the family cemetery plot. An Adell Family Reunion brought together the family's Midwest, Texas and West Coast branches, descendants of Charles and Augusta Adell. The reunion in Lindsborg, Kansas, included tours of cemeteries where Adell patriarchs are buried.

Pete Holste, organizer of the reunion of Daniel Boone descendants, reported that during a reunion in Kentucky, they visited Frankfort cemetery where Boone's remains were thought to be re-interred, and Ft. Harrodsburg, where they saw an historic re-enactment of the kidnapping of Daniel Boone's daughter by Indians. Rose Sheldon Newton, Sheldon Family Association, Inc., Fort Wayne, Indiana, says visits to a former homestead, cemetery or battlefield are incorporated into Sheldon Family Reunions. Recently, Sheldons also returned to the site of the Deerfield (Massachusetts) Massacre, where colonial ancestors were murdered or carried into slavery in Canada.

Carolyn Wilson-Elliott combined her small family reunion with genealogy research at the Arkansas Historical Society Four Corners Ancestor Fair. An exhibitor introduced Wilson-Elliott to a distant cousin who told family stories about convicted murderers and train robbers — a great hit with the children. They spent an extra day in Arkansas visiting sites of family stories and drove to Round Mountain Cemetery and walked among the headstones where many ancestors lie buried. One refused to fight during the Civil War; one was a self-taught midwife; one died when he fell into the fireplace during an epileptic seizure; and one was murdered. At the base of Round Mountain they discovered the White River where an ancestor drowned.

Storytelling with the Spirits of Your Ancestors

Family members should be encouraged to share tales about the people buried in the cemetery. Most families include memorial services in their programs, which are particularly poignant at the cemetery. When genealogist Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, CGRS, attended the Carmack reunion, she suggested a tour of cemeteries where family members were buried. Carmack says she learned more about the family than she could ever find in traditional genealogical records. She videotaped pictures of tombstones and had older family members narrate stories about the deceased. Carmack learned her grandfather, David McMasters, died on top of his roof adjusting the lightning rod during a thunderstorm!

Cemeteries are a wonderful place to teach children about respect for the dead and the sacredness of the final resting place. Explain that a cemetery is a museum without walls. Many tombstones are hundreds of years old and are not to be climbed on, colored on or knocked down.

What If You Can't Get to the Cemetery?

If your reunion is not near family plots, bring the cemetery to the reunion. Designate a cemetery committee — people who live near ancestors' graves. Ask the committee to make slides, videotape and tombstone rubbings to present a "cemetery tour." During the presentation encourage members to reminisce about departed family members, tell funny stories or other memories.

More Great Cemetery Stories!

Antoinette Kyle Ketner Bengtson of Lincoln, Nebraska, left a note in a bottle at the Gibboney Family Square, East End Cemetery in Wytheville, Virginia. Jean Bourne, a cousin from Blacksburg, Virginia, found the note when she visited the gravesites and the Gibboney Family Reunion found another descendant.

Without plans for interment, Carolyn Sigler Schellang's only sister Billie Linda Sigler Taylor died in 1995. She wanted to bury her sister in the Sigler Cemetery in Shelby County, Tennessee. Land for the cemetery was donated in February 1870 by Littleton Smith Sigler and deeded to Sigler heirs. Carolyn was dismayed by the overgrown weeds and broken headstones and discovered that few family members even knew about the cemetery. Maintenance had become too much for family members who were trying to take care of it. She has since been finding and notifying family about the cemetery and has resurrected a family reunion at the site. With money donated by "found" kin they've been able to build a fence, a new concrete drive and install a wrought iron half moon over the entrance with the Sigler name in it. She credits her cousin, Ray Sigler, and uncle, Joe Sigler, for their hard work and letting kin know their donations were being spent only for cemetery care.

Finally, one of our favorite cemetery reunions is of the descendants of John J. and Mary Jane Farrell held at St. Mary's Catholic Church and cemetery at Pine Bluff, Wisconsin. Ancestor James Farrell, hauled the lumber to build the church in the 1850s and five generations of Farrells are buried in the church cemetery. Member and liturgical choreographer, Michele White, Chicago, Illinois, wrote an elaborate performance to take place in the church during Mass and later in the cemetery. She handmade banners and streamers of colors representing each of eight siblings from whom reunion members are descended. When Mass ended, someone representing each ancestor led their relatives behind banners to the cemetery. Once there, each banner carrier recited the names of everyone in their branch. To the strains of an Irish bagpipe, White danced and connected tombstones with color ribbons to match banners. When it was over, the little cemetery was ablaze in a colorful web of ribbons and banners (the videotape is spectacular!).

FYI — Cemetery Markers for Veterans

Most veterans discharged under honorable conditions are eligible for a free marker. You'll need proof of military service: the soldier's name on a muster roll, a pension record, or extracts from state files. Federal or Confederate military service and pension records are in the national or state archives where the soldier enlisted. Confederate pension records are found in the state archives where a veteran applied for pension.

With proof of military service, you can ask Uncle Sam for one of three types of markers:

  1. a monument for a soldier's grave
  2. a memorial for a soldier whose remains aren't recoverable, or
  3. a plaque for a soldier's crypt.

To order a plaque, an upright or flat monument, complete VA Form 40-1330: Application for Standard Government Monument, from Monument Services (42), Dept. of Veterans Affairs, 810 Vermont Ave NW, Washington DC 20420.Markers weigh about 230 lbs. and are shipped free of charge but do not include installation costs. All markers remain Federal property. Anyone with knowledge of a deceased veteran may apply for a monument. Only next-of-kin may apply for a memorial. Applicants must certify there's no privately placed marker already in place.


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How-To Article: Travel to Your Past
How-To Article: What Should We Do at the Reunion?
How-To Article: Reunion Volunteers Will Get it Done

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