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teacupHoly Ground

My first congregation had a church cemetery. And that cemetery had a Cemetery Constitution, complete with even a few “Unalterable Articles”—a tiny light green booklet about three by five inches that could fit in your shirt pocket. “Rules about dirt.”

“We prefer to call it ‘The Saint John Evangelical Lutheran Church Cemetery Constitution,’ Teacher Strohacker.” The word “Evangelical” on the tiny cover was hyphenated.

Oh yes, and we had a Church Cemetery Board. The permanent chairman of that board was a somewhat crusty guy, Vic. Actually, Vic was not only the chairman, he made up the entire board. He usually carried his copy of the Cemetery Constitution with him at all times, and he regularly brought up concerns about violations at church council meetings. Those debates, rather lengthy, along with the council’s calm, patient guidance, usually headed off Vic airing concerns in a larger forum such as a voters’ meeting.

Vic had his little green booklet out when it came his turn to give his report at the church council meeting.There are two key things you need to know about that church cemetery. First, it had an “Old Section” and a “New Section.” The new section was only supposed to have flat headstones, easier to mow around. Although, unexplainably, somehow raised ones periodically snuck into that section during the night, cement footing and all. This caused Vic a lot of concern and irritation, but that is a story for another time. Second, the cemetery had a “Dedicated Section” and an “Undedicated Section.” “Holy Ground and Unholy Ground.”

“Uh, Teacher, we prefer to call it the ‘Dedicated Section’ and the ‘Undedicated Section.’”

One June evening, Vic had his little green booklet out when it came his turn to give his report at the church council meeting. Everyone knew what that meant. The window of the meeting room was open, and a refreshing breeze was coming through along with the scent of freshly plowed earth. This was sugar beet and navy bean country, and the men around this table were farmers, men very familiar with the ground. Vic’s face was wrinkled, and he seemed troubled but in a subdued sort of way. Unlike when he was speculating about possibly using his tractor to pull down another raised headstone that had snuck into the new section of the cemetery. Puzzling.

Vic started out softly. “The Widow Schlemmer invited me over for tea a couple weeks ago.” He fidgeted a bit, flipping a few pages of the little green booklet. “She had her copy of the Cemetery Constitution out on the coffee table in her living room, and after our tea and some conversation, she picked it up and turned to the section about the Dedicated and Undedicated portions of the cemetery. She said that she had read and fully understood the rules and had not asked me over to debate anything. She simply wanted to know, ‘How much?’ I asked her, ‘How much for what?’ She wanted to know, ‘How much to move Otto?’”

A bit of explanation. The Dedicated Section of the cemetery was reserved for St. John members who died in good standing and as members of St. John Lutheran Church. The Undedicated Section? Well, what’s important to know is that where the Dedicated and Undedicated sections abutted one another was yet another section of the cemetery—the section reserved for “Mixed Marriages.” No, absolutely not kidding you. For example: A member of St. John on the right side of the line; their spouse, who perhaps was not a member, on the left side. In the “Unholy Ground.”

“Again, Teacher, we prefer to call it the ‘Undedicated Section.’”

Vic continued, “Now I’ve known Mrs. Schlemmer since I was a little kid and had her for a teacher in Sunday school, and I never knew that she had grown up at the Baptist church down the road. Did any of you know that?” No one did. “Anyway, Otto has been gone for almost 30 years now and he’s buried smack in the middle of the Dedicated Section...with a spot next to him for her. However, Widow Schlemmer told me that as much as she loves St. John Lutheran Church and all of us, in her remaining years, she would like to transfer back to the Baptist church where she grew up. She still has some family and friends there. But she knows….” And then Vic’s voice rose, as if he was going to talk about getting his tractor and…

“I don’t care what you guys say, but I told her that when she passes, she will be laid alongside Otto… right where he is now! In the Dedicated Section of the cemetery.”

There was not a word of disagreement or a dry eye around the council table after Vic’s report that very pleasant June evening.

Chuck Strohacker retired at the end of the 2014–2015 school year after serving 40 years in the Michigan District, 37 of those years as a principal. He and his wife, Diane, live in retirement in St. Joseph, Mich.

Photo © iStock/Legon.