COVID called a halt to cemetery tours and other events that previously have helped pay for repairs to headstones at Indianola’s Old City Cemetery at the IOOF cemetery.
But it didn’t put an end to the repairs themselves, said Elodie Opstad, who helps organize the effort.
“Because we had to cancel everything, because of COVID, it was going to be a little smaller project this year, but not by much,” said Opstad. “We still had about 45 stones scheduled for repair.”
Opstad is working with Marty Hall of Indianola Memorial Works and the Odd Fellows, who operate the cemetery, to identify and restore grave markers that are damaged or disappearing.
The repair project was born with a column Opstad wrote a few years ago about the Old City Cemetery, the oldest part of the cemetery, located on the west side of the cemetery. When people encouraged her to set up a tour, she started digging into the history of people buried there.
“I was like just ‘this is so cool,’” she said. “I’ve got to bring this out to people.”
In the first year, Opstad helped raise $620 to be used to repair broken and fallen headstones. A grant from the Warren County Philanthropic Partnership added to the total and donations from some businesses helped raise almost $10,000 last year.
This year, an individual who visited the cemetery to do genealogical research was inspired by the project and donated $1,000 while the Odd Fellows, who operate the cemetery, have added a restoration fee to people who use the cemetery. That, plus the $3,500 from the previous year has allowed the restoration to continue.
“We couldn’t do the tours, we couldn’t do the fundraisers but the work has been able to continue,” said Opstad. “This kind of work never ends.”
Opstad’s part of the job is on the front end. She helps fundraise and identifies the stones that need repair, said Hall. She enters the stones in a database, takes a photo, and then gathers as much information as possible. Then Hall steps in to do the “work” portion of the project.
That’s getting harder as he tackles some of the stones with bigger problems. Many of the stones, made of marble and other materials, come from the late 1800s. Some are just in pieces.
“There’s a lot of piece work where we have to epoxy them together,” he said. “Some of them we’re putting together like a jigsaw puzzle in cement. And these jigsaw puzzles don’t have all the pieces.”
Once the stones are repaired, they can gather information, like the name and dates of life and death, Opstad can go in and research the individual.
That helps keep track of who is buried where, said Opstad, after a fire in the cemetery office in 1905 destroyed some cemetery records. Often, they are relying on the work she and Marty are doing, along with a cemetery guide compiled in the 1980s, to know where people are buried.
“It just preserves some of the history,” said Hall. “If we can get them put together and get some of the information from them it keeps that permanent marking there. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
And even the repaired stones won’t be around forever, said Opstad.
“They’re going to continue to deteriorate,” she said. But in the meantime, they are pulling stones out of the dirt that have been there for 50 years. “We’re losing some of the detail. Stones will continue to break and fall over, but they will really be there for quite some time.”