The cemetery at St. Peter Cemetery in Slinger has undergone some freshening up since the spring. (Photo by Colleen Jurkiewicz)
In Catholic tradition, there is a strong relationship between the Church Militant (those of us still living), the Church Suffering (those souls in Purgatory awaiting Heaven) and the Church Triumphant (the souls now in God’s presence).
This connection exists at the heart of so many of our beliefs and devotional practices. It’s why we pray for our dead, and why we ask them for their prayers in return. It’s why we are compelled to properly inter the ashes of the cremated. It’s why we have reverence for the relics of saints’ bodies. Our bond with those who have passed on from this life manifests itself in our care for their earthly remains, that temple which housed the Holy Spirit during their time here on earth.
And so there is something particularly beautiful and holy about a parish cemetery, where a body can await the Resurrection just yards away from where he or she was baptized and married, received absolution from his or her sins and partook of the Eucharist.
Directly behind St. Peter’s Church and parish office in Slinger is a sloping hill where somewhere between 800 and 900 souls have found their rest in the same community where they lived and loved and worshipped. The graves date to at least the 1860s, and the oldest memorials bear German inscriptions. The last line of graves has just been sold; so the parish is opening a new cemetery just a few blocks away on Highway 175.
It’s a familiar sight in many old, rural parishes like St. Peter, where the surnames on even the oldest gravestones match the surnames of many current parishioners.
“Theologically, it’s a practical application of how as a faith community we take care of people from womb to tomb,” said Paul Rogers of the cemetery. Rogers, the pastoral associate at St. Peter, bought one of the last remaining plots in the old cemetery. “We’re making a strong statement in the afterlife and the power of the Resurrection.”
Responsible for the care and upkeep of both cemeteries is the parish’s Cemetery Committee.
“People think I’m crazy, but I say it’s the most peaceful place in the world to work,” Committee Chairperson Bob Manning said. “I talk to the people in the graves all the time.”
Recently, the Cemetery Committee has undertaken major renovation work on the old St. Peter’s Cemetery. Spearheading the efforts is Rex Melius, a local resident who has become something of a cemetery expert. Four years ago, after retiring from Habitat for Humanity, Melius began Cemeterians, a group that beautifies and restores graves and cemeteries. Currently, he runs a very active Facebook page where fans can see the work Melius does in more than 40 local cemeteries. His mission is to preserve the dignity of the graves and the memories of the people inside them.
“I think history is so important, and I think the older you get, the more important it is to you, because you’re coming into the twilight years,” said Melius.
Melius, a Slinger native, grew up playing in the old St. Peter cemetery. This spring, he approached the church to volunteer restoration for monuments in the children’s section of the cemetery. He originally planned to work on 50 graves, but the work quickly expanded to include more than 140.
Stones that had sunk below the earth so as to be unrecognizable are now above ground again; others that could barely be read anymore have been cleaned and now shine as brightly as the most recent memorials in the cemetery. Gravel around bases has been replaced and the ground above the graves has been leveled.
Melius has also orchestrated the installation of life-size silhouettes depicting soldiers from various historical eras to adorn the graves of the veterans, which will stand guard at the cemetery until Veteran’s Day. There are also “memory lights” at each veteran’s grave, funded by community members who “adopt” a grave through Cemeterians.
The physical work of caring for the graves is a process that can facilitate a connection with the beauty of Catholic teaching on death and burial, said St. Peter pastor Fr. Rick Stoffel.
“Our care for these holy places is part of our love and care for the faith we have received,” said Fr. Stoffel. “Believing with all our hearts that if we keep the faith, the faith will keep us, we carefully keep our cemeteries as signs of the faith we share in what ‘eye has not seen and ear has not heard, what God has ready for those who love him.’”
Alongside Melius’ efforts, Bob Manning’s wife, Barb, a fellow member of the Cemetery Committee, has been doing extensive research to catalogue the dead buried in the old cemetery. She has drawn on several primary sources to compile a map of all the graves, which she then digitized.
“I used to be one of those people who thought — ‘Oh, just spread my ashes anywhere,’” she said. Her involvement at the cemetery changed that. She and her husband now own spaces in St. Peter’s columbarium.
“We told our kids we bought a condo,” she joked. “But it’s not just about the deceased, it’s about the living — about giving them an opportunity to grieve your death in going to your grave.”