Graveyard shift

by Joyce Mitchell
Special to The Leaven

No headstone marked the final resting places of Helen and Mary Pine, or Bernice and Benjamin Hackensmith.

For almost a century, the two sets of siblings lay, nearly forgotten, in their Elmwood Cemetery graves . . . until history club students at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park chose to honor their memories by restoring their graves.

The group calls itself the Graveyard SHIFT, an acronym for Students Helping Identify and Find Tombstones. This is the second year the history club has headed to this cemetery in Kansas City, Mo., to lend a hand.

“The first year they did raking, and some of those leaves had been there a long time. They were like compost,” said Judy Wollenziehn, librarian at Miege and the adult leader for the students.

But this year Graveyard SHIFT members decided they wanted to go one step further and raise funds to purchase tombstones for some of the unmarked graves they uncovered in the cemetery. By working at the Irish Fest in September, the teens managed to raise $350 for their cause.

That was enough for Bruce Mathews, board member of the Elmwood Cemetery Society, to pay for two headstones. But he thought of a way to double the impact — as well as relate the project even more closely to the Bishop Miege teens.

The graves he selected for new headstones were in the children’s section — those of Helen and Mary Pine and Bernice and Benjamin Hackensmith. Since each set of siblings was buried together, each headstone could memorialize both children. And the Miege workers, he thought, might find special meaning in honoring the memory of children who had gone, so very long ago, to unmarked graves.

Helen Pine died of measles in 1910 at 18 months; Mary died at birth in 1911. Bernice Hackensmith died in 1911 at age 16, and her brother Benjamin died at 5 months in 1913.

In order to set the tombstones, the students first dug six-inch holes for the two markers, then filled the holes with gravel and set the tombstones. Meanwhile, other SHIFT workers raked debris away from other headstones and reset those that had sunk or become lopsided over the years.

Senior John Bickers, who’s been a genealogy buff since the fourth grade, even researched the Pine and Hackensmith children by combing Missouri birth and death records and census records. His search for Bernice in the 1910 census has been fruitless thus far, he said, although that’s not unusual, since few records exist for children who died a century ago.

A brother of the Pine siblings was killed in a motorcycle crash at 17, Mathews told the students, and was buried in another section of the cemetery. Details of his death appeared in newspaper articles at the time.

Bickers also went in search of the children’s parents’ names. When he’s gathered everything he can, the group will submit the information about the four children to www.findagrave. com, an online database of cemetery listings.

Mathews has compiled family histories for many of those buried at Elmwood and already has some details about the Pine family. But he knows half the fun of the project for the students, will be Bickers and his classmates uncovering a lot of those particulars for themselves.

The students are also recording interviews for an Army veterans history project, said junior Helen Stanley, club vice president. When completed, the videos will be sent on to the Library of Congress so that future generations might learn how their ancestors served their country.

Many in the group have a strong interest in genealogy, but their activities don’t all have a historical theme, said Miege graduate Becca Carr. Last year, the students adopted a woman with multiple sclerosis and completed yardwork for her. They also help out with Christmas in October and Project Uplift.

“We started really expanding beyond findagrave.com,” Carr said.

Carr was president of the group last year. Now that her brother is an active member, she couldn’t resist stopping by Elmwood to see the new headstones.

From the handful it started with six years ago, Wollenziehn said, the Graveyard SHIFT has grown to about 60 people. The service projects, in particular, she said, have helped unify the group.

“When they do stuff together, they bond,” Wollenziehn said. “The friendships they develop are lifelong in many cases.”

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