My amazing maternal grandmother, Agnes (Smith) Herrman, originally sparked my interest in genealogy. I used to visit her over the holidays and we'd spend a lot of time talking - well, I listened and asked questions and then listened some more. Mostly, she talked about family, and when I was in my Someday I'm Going to Marry Prince Andrew* phase, I started asking about family trees, because when you read about royalty, there seem to be lots of them (generally with branches intertwining in a less-than-wholesome fashion).
She knew a lot about our family tree, and could recite it from memory. I have pages and pages of handwritten diagrams from that time, all my notes taken from her extraordinary memory.
When I discovered that my line - her line - traces back up to a revolutionary war patriot, and I was thus eligible to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, I knew I had to. I met with the local chapter registrar, Pat, and walked her through the lineage, and she told me what sorts of additional documentation would be needed for each generation from me back to Lieut. William Woodworth. One of the requests was for pictures of gravemarkers for my great-grandparents, Frank and Anna Smith.
Here's the thing: the grave markers have been removed. I know this because I once asked my grandmother if we could go to her parents' graves, and she told me about how she had gone to the cemetery, and they were no longer there. She became very angry that the markers had been removed not even fifty years after her parents' deaths, and launched into a diatribe about the evils of the Catholic Church that they would do something like that, and she was sure somehow there was a monetary reason for the removal.
Pat suggested I call the cemetery anyway, as "they may still have the cemetery plot card or other records; you'd be amazed what falls out of those files. Call them."
She was very insistent, and once I discovered the letter that fell out of Clara Herman's cemetery file, I thought maybe Pat was on to something, so I called.
A fellow by the name of Dick answered the phone at the Catholic cemetery in Antigo, Wisconsin, and I inquired if he had any records for Frank and Anna Smith. The gravemarkers had been removed, I told him, but might they have other records?
Dick became rather indignant. "We would not have done that."
"Well," I told him, "My grandmother was there maybe 20 years ago and the headstones had been removed."
"No," Dick insisted, "We would not have done that. I'm going to go take a look, I'll call you back in five minutes."
So I waited for Dick to call me and sheepishly admit what the evil Catholic empire had done for fun and profit.
He did call back, within the hour. "I think I know why your grandmother thought what she did."
Apparently the markers, which were originally placed in the 1930s, were of the flat variety: they lie flush to the ground. These markers had sunk over time, and Frank's in particular was barely visible. It is entirely possible that the day my grandmother went to her parents' graves, they were overgrown, and she thought that since she could not see them, they were no longer there (and from there, obviously, it's a short leap to a vast Catholic headstone-removal-for-profit conspiracy**).
Dick offered to mail some photos of markers, so I could see what had happened, and so he did, about a week later. He also included cemetery records that showed four of my grandmother's brothers buried in the same plot, two of whom died as infants and had no markers.
In his letter, Dick offered to dig up, raise, and restore the gravemarkers, and quoted a price I thought was reasonable, so I mailed off a check and requested he begin the work. When he dug up Frank's marker, the cement "collar" was broken into several pieces, so he mailed me photos of that and suggested replacing it.
And earlier this week, I received photos of the completed work:
This is Frank and Anna on their wedding day in 1886:
Is it weird to go around replacing gravemarkers of people who died even before my mother was born? Probably. But if you look closely at the wedding photo, you can see Anna is wearing a pin at her collar. That pin was given to my grandmother Agnes (the ninth of Anna's eleven children), who later gave it to me - the youngest of her four grandchildren. A gift from Anna, passing through time. The least I can do, I think, is return the favor.
*This was, obviously, long before he married that interesting red-headed lady.
**For the record (in all seriousness), I have nothing against the Catholic church.