Piecing together a puzzle
Riverside Cemetery has thousands of single graves, most unmarked
Riverside Cemetery is home to approximately 23,000 burials, ranging from soldiers, immigrants, politicians, the city’s early families, murder victims, unknowns and more. In sorting through materials, staff at the cemetery discovered there are around 2,500-3,000 single grave burials in the cemetery — most without headstones.
Single graves are peppered through sections 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 (Catholic II) and 8.
“We assume single graves were primarily offered to people who couldn’t afford to buy a big family plot or didn’t need to or want one. We have people who are buried here and the rest of their families were never buried here, maybe because they moved away,” Cemetery General Manager Dorie Tammen said. “In the old days, those family plots were huge. Some of them would hold a dozen graves, where most in the newer sections are four spaces … if a family plot goes inactive for 75 years, the cemetery is allowed to reclaim it to resell, publicizing the potential sale in case an ancestor claims it, but we haven’t done that since my time as general manager (beginning in 2014).”
Many of the folks buried in single graves were classified as indigent (poor) people, single males or babies. Tammen said the oldest single burial she’s discovered dates to 1886.
“Most people who are getting single spaces today aren’t buying them in those single grave sections anymore because those sections are so old. There still are spaces available in them, but people want to be by the lake now or other areas instead,” she said.
Sam Rubee, who served as superintendent of Riverside Cemetery from 1894 until his death in 1946, is considered the man most responsible for shaping Riverside’s appearance and legacy.
“Rubee didn’t want there to be a Potter’s Field here — he’d seen them in other cemeteries — where some back corner that was neglected ended up being where all the poor people went and he didn’t want that,” Tammen said.
Instead, Rubee came up with the idea of scattering the single graves throughout the 95 acres of maintained land. He gave an interview to “The American Magazine,” published in its January 1927 issue. When asked about his thoughts on having a Potter’s Field he replied: “We have none. I think it would be a blot on Riverside, a blot on the town itself, if we had one.”
Rubee went on to say, “For those who can afford it, we have large spaces which they can beautify with planting and a costly and artistic memorial, helping to make Riverside lovely for everyone. And those who can buy only a single grave share this loveliness. That, I think, is as it should be. I don’t believe in thrusting the poor into some ugly, out-of-the-way corner.”
The overseer of the poor, which was a county position, would work with the cemetery to obtain a burial space for those unable to pay.
The work of locating single graves was made easier after staff found that several lot register books also contained sections on single burials.
“Before we found that information in those books, we’d have to go through records, line by line, to spot the section we were looking for; we didn’t know there were books that had them all listed together,” she said. “Now we’re able to collect information on these burials we never had before, and we found some pretty interesting stories.”
By far, the largest number of these single graves belong to babies, many of whom were fished out of the Iowa River, deceased, as recently as the 1970s. Many of the records didn’t specify the gender of the child.
Tammen said one story that intrigues her is the case of an unidentified murder victim from 1881. The man, who appeared to be in his early 20s and of “Scandinavian appearance” died from a bullet to the right temple, his body found strewn across the railroad tracks. A pistol was found between his legs and a cartridge in one of his pockets. Because of the way in which his body was found, suicide was ruled out.
In some cases, there has been more than one inhabitant in the lifespan of a single grave.
Jerry McCann, who has done extensive research at the cemetery, notably on Civil War soldiers to get them Veterans Affairs-issued headstones, said the single burial records have proved to be helpful in his pursuits.
“One day we were looking at a story of a little boy who drowned in the river in 1890, and in trying to find his grave, I kept coming up with the name of a girl in that grave, then finally I found she had been exhumed and someone else was buried there — another girl — then the little boy buried there, third. That surprised me.”
Tammen said her goal is to create a file that contains alphabetical information about all of the cemetery’s single graves.
“I just want there to be a record of these people so they’re not lost in history, and of course, we’re trying to collect information for family research for people who come looking,” she said.
Rubee’s beautification efforts of over 100 years ago have kept Riverside Cemetery a favorite spot for locals to picnic, feed the birds, and stroll.
“It is a common theory that ‘the people cannot be educated to prefer the really fine and beautiful things of life.’ My answer to that is: give them those things; if necessary, compel them for a time to live with something beautiful. That sort of education will work the transformation — and it is the only kind that will work it. Beauty is its own teacher. Give it time enough, and it will need no interpreter. Riverside is the proof of this,” Rubee said.