- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

ST. ROSE, Ill. — Elsie and Louis Holtgrave were inseparable, married more than four decades before Louis died in November 1981. Elsie went to her grave this February.

Although they were together in life, the two are far apart in death, buried eight rows from each other in a tiny parish cemetery in this southern Illinois township where loved ones spending eternity side by side are the exception, not the norm.

In St. Rose Cemetery, tradition spanning several generations holds that the dead are buried in the order that they die.

“If something happened to me tomorrow and my wife would die three weeks later, there’d be somebody between us. That’s just the way it is, and I don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future,” says Tim Rehkemper, a member of the church committee that helps tend to the graveyard.

Family plots? Forget it, unless married couples happen to die the same day, assuring their spots next to each other in this graveyard of one-time parishioners of the 138-year-old St. Rose Catholic Church. In a few cases, a person’s cremated remains have been scattered or interred in their loved one’s plot.

The cemetery has a striking uniformity. Crafted by a monument maker in nearby Breese, tombstones are white and waist-high, topped by a carved-out cross and, increasingly in recent decades, featuring small, oval portraits of the people laid to rest there.

Some in the parish have politely suggested that the rules be changed so they could be buried next to their spouses someday. But in this community about 50 miles east of St. Louis, traditions die hard.

“It’s really kind of neat that everybody is buried in chronological order. It has been fine, really,” says Dennis Holtgrave, the 65-year-old son of the Holtgraves. He says his parents had been fine with the arrangement.

It’s not clear how many cemeteries in Illinois and elsewhere are laid out by dates of death rather than relations.

The Illinois Cemetery & Funeral Home Association says it has no such details statewide, where most of the 6,600 graveyards are family or religiously held. And of the about 3,500 graveyards the International Cemetery and Funeral Association represents nationwide, Robert Fells says he has never heard of chronological burials denying someone the opportunity to be buried next to a spouse.

“I’d have to think it’s fairly rare where you’d deliberately split up a married couple in grave spaces,” said Mr. Fells, the trade group’s external chief operating officer and general counsel.

In a community settled in the 19th century by German immigrants, the graveyard’s earliest monument appears to be that of Joseph Bonhoff, who was 21 months old when he died in 1863. The first adult was buried there seven years later in a cemetery section where many of the tombstones are now severely weathered, making them mossy and often hardly legible.

Some people consider the graveyard’s layout convenient, allowing anyone with a rough idea of what year a person died to quickly find that plot. Others may find it challenging, taking clues from grave markers that generally list the dead person’s immediate relatives and searching the cemetery for that person’s kin.

“That does make it interesting, the novelty of it,” says Marvin Tebbe, a 48-year-old who plans to be buried here.

Tebbe’s sister, Judy, was 23 when she died in 1989 in a car wreck, devastating his ailing mother, Florence Tebbe.

“It was tough for my mom to have any of her children die before her,” Mr. Tebbe says.

Ten weeks after Judy Tebbe died, so did her mother. The two are buried in the St. Rose cemetery, separated by grave sites of two unrelated souls who passed away in between them. Four rows away is the grave of Mr. Tebbe’s father, Ferdinand, who died in March 2000.

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