Integrating Cemeteries and Nature

Complimentary Story
Editor, Wisconsin Christian News:

June 2024

   This is a story of people doing what they believe is right, not just for themselves.  It begins in 1848 when a young girl, Mary Ann Plummer, died and was buried on their farm as was then common. Later in 1869 her parents, Mark and Louisa Plummer, as well as neighbors Cyrus and Malona Pride, each gave land to start what would become Plummer Cemetery in the Town of Oshkosh. In 1926, another acre would be ceded by their descendant Levi.

   In 1999, the Leach and Stearns families would cede another acre for future cemetery use. That acre was already under town control through a conservancy that had been set up for hundreds of other acres of land in the town – land that could have been sold for development. For them the right thing was keeping it farmland, or letting it return to nature. Most is still farmed.

   Being sexton of the Plummer Cemetery for almost 40 years – taking over from my dad – something about that new acre got me thinking. It could be left as farmland, or turned into lawn, for future sales. Yet, there was still almost an acre of unsold lots serving that purpose. It could become more grass desert.

   Did town taxpayers really need to pay for more mowing? I searched for groups such as Wild Ones, with conservation-minded members trying to restore natural habitat little by little. Could this one acre of the cemetery serve as such?

   Last year, wildflower seeds were planted there and the cost was meager compared with the expense of working the soil and planting grass seed, along with continued mowing. The planting of this natural pollinator habitat was only more expensive in the seed. Maintenance? With volunteer help, monitoring and removal of noxious weeds such as thistles and velvet leaf, the site should only require controlled burns.

   The Town of Oshkosh Fire Department, required to conduct training exercises every year, can control-burn that parcel as needed. Hopefully, burn-hardy trees such as oak and hickory may take foot hold as well.

   Plans are in the works to keep this portion of the cemetery in natural habitat. Those wishing to purchase traditional lots have many of those available with mowed grass around a monument where artificial flowers can be placed by loved ones.

   As sexton I have watched traditions changing over the years, with cremations now common and ashes placed within a smaller monument space or scattered among beautiful wildflowers with a central monument recording the names. Even traditional burials with limited monuments could be done in this portion with natural wildflowers helping memorialize relatives.

   I began saying this is a story about people doing what they believe is right. There are thousands of cemeteries in Wisconsin, where grass is mowed throughout the summer. Pollinators find little nectar, birds find few insects upon which to feed, plastic flowers go into the trash.

   I think of Mark and Louisa planting flowers at little Mary Ann Plummer’s grave. Only seven years later Cyrus Pride would bury a babe as well as a wife. Back then each family cared for the graves of their loved ones; now in most cases that is a public trust.

   As sexton I have tried to balance what is right for the loved ones and for local taxpayers. Now, I’m asking what is right for nature. If you either run a cemetery, work at one or visit loved ones and there is a large grass desert – mowed but unused – please think about this.

-Bill Behringer, Winneconne, Wis.

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