- Associated Press - Friday, June 5, 2015

MARYVILLE, Mo. (AP) - Mandi Brown has a passion for cemeteries, and, by combining the skills of a historian, detective, preservationist and genealogist, has dedicated a large portion of the last 50 years to combing graveyards - sleuthing out their secrets and ensuring that the final resting places of the dead are maintained with honor and dignity.

Over the decades the longtime Maryville resident has rescued scores of graves from obscurity, taking her skills and commitment for marker preservation to all 48 contiguous states, the Maryville Daily Forum (https://bit.ly/1I8Xf4M ) reported.

In Maryville’s two largest burial grounds, municipally owned Oak Hill Cemetery and privately operated Miriam Cemetery, Brown and a small group of fellow volunteers have rescued nearly 70 gravesites, where aging markers had sunk into the ground, tumbled over, been hit by mowing equipment or simply fallen victim to time and the elements.

This summer, Brown said she hopes to restore 14 grave markers at Oak Hill, which was established by the city in the 1870s. She’s not sure how much work needs to be done at Miriam, which is somewhat older and larger, saying only that “a lot more” graves there remain to be found or restored or both.

For nearly two years, Brown has been working as a volunteer with the city of Maryville to help compile a compete record of gravesites at Oak Hill. Aging books filled with written burial records have now given way to a GIS database, which is available to the public through the office of City Clerk Sheila Smail.

Smail said Brown has put in countless hours helping locate and restore graves and has sometimes been able to assist people enquiring about lost gravesites using the centuries-old practice of dowsing. Dowsers use metal or wooden rods said to twist in the hand in ways that indicate the presence of water, metal, oil, gemstones, graves or just about anything else underground.

There is no scientific basis for dowsing, the results of which skeptics explain away as confirmation bias, probability, reflexive muscle action or just plain luck and wishful thinking.

But Smail said that on at least one occasion - an out-of-town request with regard to the burial location of a great-aunt who died as a toddler - Brown was able to dowse a possible child’s gravesite in an Oak Hill plot where a number of people from the same family are buried.

Using a pair of L-shaped metal rods sharpened at the tip for probing into the ground, Brown claims to be able to determine not only the location of a grave, but its length and whether the person buried there is male or female.

But whether or not dowsing works, there is no doubt about Brown’s commitment to the upkeep and preservation of cemeteries, tasks she sees as important to the living as well as the dead.

A native of St. Louis, Brown said she learned about the importance of looking after graves from her grandmother.

“She taught me that cemeteries are not places to be afraid of but places to be taken care of,” said Brown, who in addition to finding graves raises sunken tombstones, gently cleans lichen-stained and moss-covered markers, repairs concrete bases, fills in small cracks with granite putty, and replaces the rebar stakes sometimes used to hold markers upright.

She also offers instruction to groups and individuals interested in learning preservation techniques and has founded a local group of cemetery enthusiasts who call themselves the Guardians of the Stones.

In addition, Brown works to uncover and preserve information about the lives of those buried beneath the markers she lovingly cares for. Studying epitaphs, lodge symbols, carved images, and inscriptions sometimes tucked away on the sides and backs of stones, she said, can reveal a surprising amount of information.

She recalled one tombstone she found deep in the Missouri Ozarks that paid tribute to “A great dad, an awesome grandpa and a good bootlegger.”

More usually, she added, a carved Bible verse or memorial phrase will reveal some insight into the lives of the long-forgotten dead.

While bringing such clues to light can be gratifying, Brown warned that anyone seeking to take up cemetery research and preservation needs to be prepared to put in a lot of hours and effort.

When talking to others about how to get started, she warns them first to have a plan in place, to acquire the right tools and equipment, and to make sure they have enough resources - both people and money - to achieve their goals.

“I learned that the hard way,” Brown said.

If that all that sounds like a lot of work, it is, especially given the fact that, according to Brown’s count, Nodaway County alone contains an estimated 114 cemeteries.

“I’ve been to all of them for one reason or another,” she said.

But it’s a mission Brown believes is both important and rewarding.

“If we don’t preserve our past,” she said, “We’re going to lose our future. When you preserve cemeteries you are preserving those who have gone before.”


Information from: Maryville Daily Forum, https://www.maryvilledailyforum.com

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