At Pilsen cemetery, every headstone tells a story
Every headstone at Pilsen Cemetery has a story to tell, but the mystery of an unmarked grave sparked William Benda to begin collecting them.
“This guy got me started on this job,” he said the cemetery manager and patting a sliver of carved marble that now marks once-forgotten Frank Sazma’s burial site.
Benda was told a man buried in unmarked grave was kin to some in the village and had worked as a hired hand.
Benda wondered if he might be a relative.
He asked an older member of his family about her grandmother’s family name.
“I just threw it out there,” he said.
She immediately remembered an old man who hauled freight for Mrs. Czerny, the shopkeeper, but didn’t know what became of him.
“I made a few phone calls just trying to locate anything, and found records in the cemetery database, he said.
Benda pooled resources with other family members and made a headstone from a piece of hard marble they found in field.
They did the work themselves and paid $5 for the stone.
Taking on the job of caring for the cemetery seemed like a natural fit as board members began to age and maintenance was neglected.
Benda farms nearby, so he can be on hand when something needs to be dealt with.
“I make a mad dash out here when something is going on,” he said.
Benda has been busy getting the cemetery ready for Memorial Day by putting down gravel in the driveway, trimming hedges, and arranging for monuments to be set.
It’s slower this year, unlike one pre-season rush where Benda had 10 or 12 headstones delivered ahead of the holiday. Four is manageable.
Caring for a cemetery is like running a wheat operation — it’s a year-round job and there is always something that needs to be dealt with promptly.
If there is a burial in winter, Benda will stake off the ground to make sure workers who are setting a monument will have a guide in the snow.
Trees need to be trimmed, grass mowed, and headstones staked. Graves that have settled or graves that need to settle must be raked over.
The grounds usually are taken care of every two weeks, but a cold spring has given his crew some reprieve.
The system he has now is superior to the lack of organization he encountered when he took over.
Families who owned plots had to mow themselves which quickly became a problem as residents aged and families moved away.
An elderly man with a sickle mover would get angry every time he hit a stone. He pried them up and threw them aside.
Benda, who has deep ties to several area families, has more reverence for the cemetery’s monuments and often is called upon to repair them.
He does the best he can with the old marble stones of people whose families are long gone.
“We just hope,” he said. “If something comes up and there is no family, we do what we can to patch it up.”
The old section lies beyond a crucifix erected to honor Father Emil Kapaun.
He is not quite certain how old the section is, though. Benda has collected information by poring over back issues of newspapers for death notices.
Some time ago, Benda ran across an obituary that named Anna Rudolph as the cemetery’s first burial.
“We don’t have a death date, so I am assuming sometime after 1874,” he said.
Benda has been told there were burials at the site before it was recognized as a cemetery
“This is the area where the original burials were,” he said, pointing to a patch of ground with older headstones. “And it is full of unmarked graves.”
A lot system where families could buy plots began in the 1890s and people were buried as they died.
Benda points out a few headstones with the name Rudolph.
They probably are Anna Rudolph’s stepsons’ children, but neither her name nor her husband’s appear on the headstone.
“Let me explain that a little bit,” he said. “They were marrying, burying, and remarrying every which way. So there were likely three family names involved.”
Pilsen is now a cemetery district, but distribution of lots has slowed.
The COVID-19 epidemic spurred a rash of young people who were interested in “pre-need” plots.
A cemetery often is the final stop for feuds.
“I am careful to ask people if there is anyone they would rather not be buried next to,” he said.
This job has taught him every family is different, but he is careful to keep records.
Pilsen is one of few in the county that regularly updates the county’s cemetery database with new burials.
But he admits an accurate count of souls buried there is probably impossible.
“There is no way of knowing,” he said.
There are many empty plots and, perhaps, graves with no monuments.
Last modified May 26, 2021