Cemeteries and Country Cafés: Where Old Friends Meet

by Glen Klassen, Winnipeg

A few years ago, not having enough to do, I suppose, I got involved with a local history research group. Before I knew it I had agreed to do some ‘ground-breaking’ research: I was supposed to get the GPS readings for every cemetery and burial plot in the RM of Hanover (the Mennonite East Reserve) and somewhat beyond. I thought that would be a few dozen; I am now up to 127.

Abe U. Klassen at the first Blumenort Village cemetery. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Abe U. Klassen at the first Blumenort Village cemetery. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

I had done a lot of research in my life, but never anything so close to the ground. How to go about it? Of course I had to comb through everything that had been published on graveyards, but my basic approach was to take a week-day morning, go to a selected district, find the oldest guy in the neighborhood (or gal, although all my contacts were guys), ask him to show me where the bodies were buried and then take him for lunch in the nearest country restaurant. In Blumenort it was noodle soup and burritos, in Kleefeld at the time it was pumpkin soup, in Niverville it was a fried chicken snack, and in Grunthal it definitely included the best fruit pies. It never cost me more than a twenty. 

Many of the graveyards are well documented. For the Chortitzer graveyards and burial plots, which form the majority in the region, I thank deacon Jake Klassen, who produced an accurate and complete record of all the Chortitzer Mennonite Church cemeteries and plots in 1988. For the Kleine Gemeinde (EMC) graveyards, the work of the late Bernard P. Doerksen and Garth P. Doerksen was invaluable. For the Steinbach Pioneer Graveyard the source was Ernie P. Toews, and for Clear Springs it was Ed and Alice Laing. The local guides who helped me explore cemeteries and cafés included Abe U. Klassen, Ernest Klassen, William Heese, Philip Hiebert, Jake Banman, Ernie Braun, Henry Fast, Helen Fenuik, Garth Doerksen, Harold Dyck, and Jake Harms. I apologize to those who didn’t get a lunch out of it. I also thank the Dyck brothers and their magnificent dog who allowed me to explore their farmyard in Rosengard. 

In the course of all this grave hunting I came across interesting stories, some sad, some hilarious, some bizarre, and some verging on the macabre.

The Dyck's farmyard in Rosengard. Photo Credit: Ernie Braun

The Dyck’s farmyard in Rosengard. Photo Credit: Ernie Braun

One of the funniest stories I heard was of the lady buried in Felsenton (right beside the Steinbach Waste Facility) who had a lot of trouble with one of her legs before she died. Apparently she decreed that the leg should be buried separately. She didn’t want to have anything to do with it in the afterlife. I can’t vouch for the truth of this tale, but I sometimes feel that way too.

Speaking of tall tales reminds me of the day some of us history geeks went to the site of the immigration sheds near Niverville (two miles south and half a mile east of Wm Dyck & Sons), because there are supposed to be some graves there.  As we wandered around the site we noticed a distinct low ridge to the north-east perhaps 300 metres from the corner. Surely they would have buried people high and dry, wouldn’t they? Yes, but the ridge would probably also have been used as a trail or road, maybe even the famous Crow Wing Trial which went from Fort Garry to the States. Would they have used a roadside? All this logic, of course, got us nowhere. We needed evidence. 

Roland Sawatzky and Glen Klassen at the site of the immigration sheds. Photo Credit: Ernie Braun.

Roland Sawatzky and Glen Klassen at the site of the immigration sheds. Photo Credit: Ernie Braun.

I think this is where the great witching debate got started. Apparently there is a man who can, with the aid of two bent metal bars, tell where bodies are buried. Should we perhaps get a hold of him? One of us, a true believer, was willing to give it a try. Another, a disciple of the sceptic David Hume, was adamant that our whole integrity was at stake. If anything, we should try ground-penetrating radar, like they did with the Vollwerk cemetery near Mitchell. We resolved nothing except that when we heard that the talented grave detector could not only find graves, he could also tell the direction in which the head of the buried person was pointing, as well as whether the corpse was lying flat on its back or on its stomach, we had a good laugh. A likely tall tale.

What is important about the position of the corpse? Actually it’s all quite macabre. The universal rule was that a person should always be buried with the head pointing west so that on resurrection morning, when the body would rise to the vertical and stand on its two feet, it would face Jerusalem to the east. Except that suicides were buried the other way around, because…well you know the answer. I doubt that this rule was always followed. More likely suicides were sometimes just buried outside the fence of the cemetery. This may actually have happened at the village of Schoenenberg where Ernie Braun and Roland Sawatzky found the old village graveyard, and sure enough, there is an isolated grave not far away, pointed out to them by Peter Broesky.

But what if some bodies were found to be lying on their stomachs? They were never buried that way, so the inference would be that they rearranged themselves after burial, meaning that they were buried alive! What a gruesome thought. But plenty such rumours have been common in many cultures. Actually I have a theory about these rearranged skeletons, but more of that a little later.

Just a bit more about the direction of burial. The rule was that the feet should point east or approximately east. Many of the East Reserve Mennonite villages were laid out at an angle, because they followed the course of a creek. All of the village lots would then be at an angle perpendicular to the creek. The graveyard, which was usually placed near the center of the village at some distance from the main street, would be aligned to the village lots and the graves would be parallel to the graveyard fence, oriented to the south-east or the north-east – as long as it was approximately east. Usually it’s one or the other, but at the Steinbach Pioneer cemetery, both directions can be found.

The only exception to this practise I have found in Hanover is at Hochstadt, between Kleefeld and Grunthal. The little graveyard in the ditch beside the road has about half a dozen headstones listing Kleine Gemeinde Mennonite and Lutheran names, and they are all oriented to the west! The other two Hochstadt cemeteries have the easterly orientation. It may be that they sensibly thought that since the stones would be mostly viewed from the road to the west that the stones should be easily readable. Sometimes practicality trumped tradition. I am surprised that the Lutherans went along with this, because at the magnificent Lutheran cemetery just south of Steinbach on Highway #12, where they have the same problem, they have engraved the family name on the back of the headstones so that they are readable to people approaching the graveyard from the highway. Also very sensible, but respectful of tradition.

An excavated grave. Animals such as badgers often find cosy homes there.

An excavated grave. Animals such as badgers often find cosy homes there.

Back to the immigration sheds. The problem is to find lost graves. Since ground-penetrating radar is expensive, it is tempting to find more direct methods. If you have a bulldozer handy, you could scrape off the topsoil down to about a foot and see if there is evidence of grave-sized disturbed soil. This has often been successful. Uncle Abe U. Klassen in Blumenort showed me the place where this had been done beside Twin Creek Road to reveal the graves of several of my great uncles and aunts, some of whom died as children and were buried behind the Peter Klassen orchard at Neuanlage. It is amazing that even after more than one hundred years you can still see the disturbed soil. This kind of ‘research’ was also done at the Doerksen burial plot at Schoenhorst.

As we were exploring the immigration shed area I ventured off the road a bit and almost put my foot into a badger hole. This led to my proposed new method of finding lost graves: follow the badger!

It is well known that badgers like to dig deep holes in the ground to find mice and earthworms and to create home burrows for themselves and their young. They like grasslands because they can conceal themselves, being very low-slung animals. They also like disturbed soil which is easy to dig into. You guessed it, they like old overgrown graveyards. Ernie Braun and I recently visited just such a graveyard in the middle of a field. The grass and weeds were waist-high and we had to tear out the foliage just to see the gravestones. The most recent graves were from the 1930s. Actually the plot was surrounded by a very nice cable fence with stainless steel posts. I wandered toward the center of the plot and noticed a big pile of sandy soil and then I almost stepped on a badger. Knowing their reputation for aggressive behaviour, I quickly removed myself, but Ernie moved closer and said he could smell the musky smell of an infuriated badger. Then we noticed that the area was riddled with badger holes

Badger hunting in an old, neglected graveyard. Ernie Braun almost meets the badger.

Badger hunting in an old, neglected graveyard. Ernie Braun almost meets the badger.

Actually, Linda Buhler, in her article about Kronsgard in Historical Sketches of the East Reserve mentions that the “use of this gravesite (Kronsgard) diminished sharply when a badger made its home there in 1922 and unearthed a braid and some fabric remnants from a recent grave.” There are also reports on the internet about how badgers are a real problem for old graveyards in England. Apparently some vicars have to collect unearthed bones all the time and rebury them. Even skulls sometimes. A lot of ancient burial grounds have been discovered in Europe by watching where the badgers dig.

So I proposed that instead of hiring the wand-witching guy, we simply follow the badgers to the lost graveyards. This may also explain the “face-down” burials. Rather than imagining a wretched soul twisting and turning in the grave, we can simply see a badger family rearranging the furniture. Almost like the talking badgers who fought for Aslan in Narnia.

The ghosts of the immigration sheds will keep their mystery a little longer. As for us, we went to the Subway in Niverville for a good lunch and the regular chin-wag. We agreed that there should be a memorial at the shed site for those who came all that way from Russia by train, ship, laker, and riverboat, only to end their long journey at the edge of the promised land. Like Moses, really.

Sometimes graves are elusive not because we don’t know where they are, but because someone has moved them. The atlas produced in 1988 by John Rempel and William Harms has a picture of a little private graveyard on the former Wohlgemuth farm just a quarter mile southeast of the Blumenort corner on the ridge. I went to visit the site only to be told that the two graves had been moved. All I could see were the depressions in the ground where the graves had been. I knew that Heinrich E. Wohlgemuth and his two-year-old daughter Maria had been buried there and that the family belonged to the ‘Holdeman’ Church. I jumped to the conclusion that the graves must have been moved to the Greenland cemetery since that is the closest Holdeman cemetery. But then I happened to bump into Norman Wohlgemuth at MJs in Steinbach. (Betty and I don’t go out for breakfast a lot, never more than once a day, but that is how I have learned everything that has happened in Steinbach over the last forty years while I was away professoring in Winnipeg.) I asked Norman about the Wohlgemuth graves and he directed me to his cousin Winston who told me later that he had personally been involved in the grave movement. Surprise! The graves were moved to the Blumenhof cemetery, mostly occupied by Kleine Gemeinders (EMC). There are, however, other Wohlgemuth relatives there as well. New grave stones were installed, with Maria Wohlgemuth’s little stone hugging her Daddy’s bigger one. The graves were moved because it was thought that the village of Blumenort would develop to the southeast. 

The moved Wohlgemuth graves in the Blumenhof cemetery.

The moved Wohlgemuth graves in the Blumenhof cemetery.

Other graves have also been moved, mostly because of road construction. All of the Lutheran graves near the junction of the #59 Highway and the Niverville road as well as those a few miles north near Prefontaine Road were moved to the Niverville town cemetery as a result of Highway #59 upgrades. A beautiful monument has been erected at the Niverville corner. I have visited the site a number of times and it always makes me sad to read there of the many diphtheria deaths in the early days. The site also serves as a parking lot for car-sharing commuters. I suppose it’s good for the environment.

Sometimes graves have been disturbed by road building machinery. This happened some time ago at the Schoenfeld village site near Kleefeld. Three graves were dug up to reveal three skeletons. It was not feasible to re-inter the bones at the same site so someone collected them and brought them to the Anthropology Department at the University of Manitoba for identification. The bones turned out to be the remains of one adult and two children. Their identities were never determined, and after about fifteen years at the University, the bones were returned. Since there is no active cemetery in the Schoenfeld area, the Chortitzer Mennonite Church decided to bury them in the historic graveyard at Chortitz (Randolph), several miles to the north. There, on a blistering hot day in October of 2010, three small varnished boxes were buried with touching ceremony. The Chortitzer Ältester preached a short English message and then we sang Was Gott tut dass ist wohl getan (What God does is well done). How many people have the honour of being buried twice and having two funerals? 

The re-interment service at Chortitz for the Shoenfeld skeletons.

The re-interment service at Chortitz for the Shoenfeld skeletons.

By the way, because I used to be a geneticist, I can say that it would have been possible to find out whom the bones belonged to by using DNA. DNA has been usefully extracted from bodies as old as ten thousand years or more, and so, since these bones were only about one hundred years old, it should have been easy. After getting the DNA out of the bones you would have to collect DNA samples from living relatives of people known to have ancestors in Schoenfeld and you would likely be able to identify the families involved. After that it would have been detective work using the GRANDMA database of more than a million Mennonites. To get a DNA sample is as simple as swabbing the inside of a cheek with a Q-tip. Nonetheless, all of this would have been more trouble than it was worth. Mennonites are notoriously unsentimental about their dead. Whereas Catholics, Lutherans and Presbyterians almost always buried their dead in neat centralized church cemeteries, the early Manitoba Mennonites preferred private plots near the farm, especially for young children. The tiny village of Neuanlage just south-west of Blumenort has at least six burial sites within half a mile.

The Anna and Alexander Schilstra gravestone at Clearsprings. Alexander was Steinbach's first real doctor and Anna was its first female doctor.

The Anna and Alexander Schilstra gravestone at Clearsprings. Alexander was Steinbach’s first real doctor and Anna was its first female doctor.

Sometimes a grave is not a grave. Most early Ukrainians were buried in the church graveyards so I was surprised to learn of a ‘Manyluk grave’ north of Sarto. My contacts in the Ukrainian community had never heard of this grave and did not recognize the name. I went to the site and found a concrete block in the corner of a field. The farmer, who graciously let me examine the site, had for years been carefully skirting the block during field work. Not all farmers are so conscientious. After talking to more local Sarto historians I began to realize that the block was not a grave marker at all. Instead, it was a pedestal for a roadside cross, one of three erected by early Ukrainian settlers. Beside this one, there was one just west of Sarto and another one close to Trentham. Nothing remains of the latter two crosses. Apparently the crosses were raised during the settlement process to reinforce the idea that Jesus was with the settlers, and that Jesus ‘rested’ at the cross sites, blessing the new land. This reminded me of the twelve crosses that were erected in England to mark the places where the body of Eleanor, queen to Edward I, rested for the night as they brought her home to London. The last one is now Charing Cross. I would encourage the Ukrainian community to restore the cross site as a historical project.

The Clearsprings cemetery is one of the best kept and best documented graveyards in the RM. It is also eminently historic, containing perhaps the oldest marked grave in Hanover, that of two-year-old Robert Matthews, who died in 1877. There is also a memorial for 21 year-old John Gorrie, killed at Vimy Ridge in 1917 and buried in France. Tom Hasted also was killed in action in WWI. William Acres got to Manitoba because he was part of the Wolseley Expedition sent here by way of the Dawson Trail to quell the first Riel Rebellion. An early Clearsprings teacher, John Code, left teaching to join forces against Riel in 1881 and was actually killed in the conflict. However, he is not buried at Clearsprings. Another military man buried at Clearsprings was Alexander Schilstra, Steinbach’s first real doctor. He interrupted his Steinbach practise to serve in Mesopotamia at the Tigris front in 1917. Lots of history here. 

One of a number of old wooden grave markers in a Mennonite cemetery marked with a cross. How did that happen?

One of a number of old wooden grave markers in a Mennonite cemetery marked with a cross. How did that happen?

Is there room for romance in an account such as this? The story of David and Lauretta Unger, buried side by side at Clear Springs, is poignant. The beautiful Lauretta, widow of William Acres, married David in 1891. They both died in 1938 after a long life together. Such Mennonite-Presbyterian marriages were rare even though the two communities were on very good terms at all times. Ellis Penner tells me that he was named for a neighbor by the name of Ellis Duckworth. Was the church displeased with his bold marriage move? Did they realize how close the Presbyterians were to the Mennonite ethos? One small example of this is the fact that you see very few crosses at Clearsprings, just like a Mennonite cemetery. I was quite surprised when visiting the Rosengard cemetery at the former CMC Church to find a row of very old wooden markers with crosses on them. 

My contacts for the Clearsprings area were Ed and Alice Laing. But I don’t think I have yet taken them to a country café for lunch. Sorry Ed and Alice.

A cemetery with a shallow well!?

A cemetery with a shallow well!?

Occasionally graveyard cairn inscriptions lead to the comment: ‘oops!’. At one cemetery someone has taken the trouble to mount an engraved cross on the gate listing the people buried there. Unfortunately, the name of the village is badly misspelled. At another, the family has gone to the trouble of mounting a brass plaque on a carefully constructed memorial, but one of the names has been hijacked by the notorious German vowel combination: “ie” or is it “ei”? as in Thiessen, Wiebe, and Reimer. Apparently this happens even within the City of Steinbach, where an expensive plaque had to be replaced recently because someone didn’t use his spell-checker. When such a mistake is first noticed I imagine it is very hard to keep from saying an appropriate, but not very nice expression.

Another surprise was to find a well-pump on a graveyard south of Steinbach. A shallow well on a graveyard? Hmm… Great for watering the flowers, I suppose, but certainly unusual. 

The inscriptions on the grave stones of women is sometimes revealing of old attitudes toward them. Sometimes a woman will be identified simply as “Mrs. John Friesen.” More often her Christian name is given, followed by “wife of …”. Sometimes her full name, including her maiden name, is used, but there are denominational differences. The old Kleine Gemeinde graves are most likely to name just the husband. Chortitzer graves are much more likely to have the woman’s given name. It seems that we Kleine Gemeinders were more patriarchal than our Chortitzer neighbors. Nonetheless, both groups produced very strong women who were admired by all. Two that come to mind are Katherine Hiebert of Niverville, a legendary midwife, and Gertrude Klassen of Kleefeld, a healer and foster parent. 

Maria Kauenhowen's 1909 grave in Burwalde. Upon reading the stone more carefully we find that she was actually Mrs. Jakob W. Thiessen!

Maria Kauenhowen’s 1909 grave in Burwalde. Upon reading the stone more carefully we find that she was actually Mrs. Jakob W. Thiessen!

Many historic Mennonite graveyards that are no longer being used are almost totally neglected. When the villages disbanded often the graveyard was abandoned. We could be ashamed of this, but there might be another side to the story. When visiting graveyards in England and Germany, I noticed the same contrast.  English graveyards looked neglected, but I found them romantic in the same way that a ruined castle is more interesting than a restored one. In Germany everything was trim and orderly…and uninteresting. I sometimes wonder whether the restoration being done to graveyards now-a-days, with the long straight cement pedestals and remounted headstones (when they didn’t crumble during the process) is the way to go. We saw some Ojibwa graves at Ear Falls in Ontario recently. They were basically little picket fence enclosures. The wood was weathered and mature poplars grew right in the grave. Apparently they deliberately allow the graves to age and eventually melt into the environment.  Sounds biblical to me.

I haven’t said much about country cafés. They were, however, indispensable to the cemetery field work. In the end, the payoff for research is the chance to share it with sympathetic conversationalists. Once we get to the café the time has come to brag, tell jokes, argue and generally have a cracking good time. This is what really charges the batteries. The greatest reward is if the waitress can’t resist a tiny little smile after serving our table. Of course, generous tips follow. Unfortunately, these sessions always generate a huge list of more things to do that rivals the menu at Gan’s in Niverville.

I am fast approaching my seventy-fifth birthday. Life is so short and death is so final and formidable. While travelling around the cemeteries of Hanover I was always conscious of this even though the research was enjoyable and the company of other old people was often stimulating. I did not feel that we were ever in denial in the face of the awesome reality of approaching death. We rest in the confidence that the faith of our fathers and mothers, joined with our own, will meet the faithfulness of God at the end.

What! No footnotes? This time you will just have to take my word for it. This is your reward for trying to read my previous Preservings articles with all their turgid prose and endless footnotes.


Our magazine, published twice a year.


Fellowships, grants for research, and publication.