SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Matt Gage quit his corporate job with the living and took a job he finds more fulfilling overseeing Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Sioux Falls.
“My favorite part of the job is a funeral is a solemn occasion and I find peace in those few minutes when everything is quiet, and I’m off to the side. I can hear the birds, the prayers and any songs being sung,” Gage said. “It brings peace and harmony, it comes together.”
This past Memorial Day weekend cemeteries were busy with people placing memorials at gravesites.
Gage believes Mount Pleasant is a place for the dead and to remember and honor them, but it is also for the living.
“If you walk around the fence line of the cemetery you will notice that family houses, a lot of them have gates in the backyard, so they can come into the cemetery and walk,” Gage said.
“Earlier today, I just saw a guy riding his bike here,” cemetery employee Chad Christianson said.
Even kids ride bikes in the cemetery, Gage said.
“We consider the cemetery something that belongs to all. Why shouldn’t people come in and enjoy nature or walk and see the (architecture of tombstones). We welcome them,” Gage said.
“There are many cemeteries that welcome people in,” said Kevin Gansz, the education coordinator for the Siouxland Heritage Museums, “I was just talking to one of our volunteers and almost on a daily basis she does her morning walk in Woodlawn Cemetery. She’s like it’s beautiful… There’s wildlife to see. It’s really kind of a tranquil and beautiful place to see. I think cemeteries should be a welcoming place like that.”
Gansz said while cemeteries are good places to enjoy nature, learn history and more, it’s important to respect the times people may be in a cemetery on a particular day.
People may visit a cemetery on their own but two historical societies in the region offer more formal ways to visit cemeteries.
For at least 30 years, Siouxland Heritage Museums have organized cemetery tours in the Sioux Falls area.
The history is quite as long for the Pipestone County Historical Society.
Trava Olivier, the education coordinator for the Pipestone County Historical Society said cemetery tours started a few years ago and she increased the number of tours during the COVID pandemic.
They’ve become “some of our best attended events,” Olivier said.
“They are popular now, Olivier said cemetery tours that are popping up around the country. “I hope it remains popular and it’s not just a trend,” she said.
“We do get all ages,” Gansz said of attendance at cemetery tours.
The Pipestone County tours are divided into categories of histories of deceased individuals significant to a town or county history, histories of ordinary individuals and their lives, veterans and the architecture or symbolism on tombstones or grave markers.
Stories from the graves
“There’s a lot of history there,” Gansz said of the people buried in a cemetery who were parents, grandparents and some founding fathers and mothers of their communities.
There are stories to be told and people should not be forgotten, he said.
“I think that’s importance cemetery can hold for us, something the museum really works with our cemetery tours and some of the different programming we do with cemeteries, our hope we’re letting these people stories live on for the next generation, so they just aren’t forgotten in our community,” Gansz said.
Olivier said people when people learn about history it can seem distant and not much more than a bunch of dates and facts.
“That’s kind of dry,” she said of facts and dates.
But inside a cemetery are the history of the people who lived during those history lessons.
“Study the dates on tombstones and look how many people died in 1918 or 1919. What was happening then?” Olivier said. How many of those people died in W.W.I or of the Spanish Flu pandemic?
“Cemeteries are great historical and physical reminders that these were real people who lived during these times,” said Ben Jones, the South Dakota state’s historian and director of the South Dakota State Historical Society.
The dates on tombstones tell a historical story but the tombstones themselves can also tell a story of the life and times of the deceased.
“Some monuments are somewhat telling of a social class,” Olivier said.
The R.F. Pettigrew Mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in Sioux Falls is one example of a social status individual.
“It speaks to who he thought he was…,” Gansz said. The material came from Vermont, and it cost $10,000 in 1905. Pettigrew was instrumental in the development of Sioux Falls, Gansz said. Pettigrew’s former house is now a museum.
Jones said he’s noticed that many 19th century grave markers include angels put on a stone.
Sometimes, that will signify that a child died, Olivier said.
Urns on a tombstone will usually indicate eternal life, she said.
The type of stone used in head stones can tell about the region’s rock or geology.
“Quartzite stone is common here and it’s common for headstones,” Jones said.
Gage is learning stories from Mount Pleasant by talking with those who are visiting grave sites. He may ask them to “tell me about your family,” Gage said.
Sometimes, the visitors are at a grave from the 1900s to the 1920s visiting their great-grandparents, Gage said.