One writer’s Memorial Day quest to discover his ancestors—and their final resting place
By Bob Zeni
My mother was born in Monticello, Illinois, a small town halfway between Decatur (where I grew up) and Champaign. When I was young, she would drag me, my sister Carol, and her alcoholic brother Fred back there every year to celebrate Memorial Day. Mom would spend the morning at the Monticello cemetery conversing with her dead relatives and the afternoon doing the same with the live ones who gathered for the family picnic nearby. She would conduct a tour of the graves, cheerfully reciting the litany of illnesses (cancer, pneumonia, tuberculosis, “the pox,” “the fever”) and everyday incidents (tractor accidents, sundry infections, childbirth) that took their occupants. I’d read the birth/death dates, noting with horror that many were my age.
Each year, Mom would drill cemetery etiquette into me. You maintain a respectful silence. If you must speak, you do so quietly. You touch only your ancestors’ markers. You never run; you always walk. And only between the graves—never ever across them. (“They might reach out and grab you,” Uncle Fred would add.) Mom would take along a pair of garden clippers, kneel down and gently snip away any growth that obstructed the names or dates. She’d pull out any weeds and place the flowers she’d brought along. If the gravestones were askew or unkempt, she’d dispatch Uncle Fred to ream out the cemetery manager.
The afternoons were devoted to the convivial gathering of a couple dozen distant cousins from Bement, Cisco, Latham, Mansfield, Weldon, and other tiny Central Illinois hamlets. Many were pudgy, white-haired women whose husbands had passed from a lifetime of cigarettes, the rigors of farming, or accidents in Decatur factories, where many had commuted to make money. The widows would tell—and retell—stories everyone already knew by heart, and provide updates on marriages, births, and deaths.
My junior year of high school in 1969, I offhandedly asked how we were all related. “Katie, bar the door!” one of the ladies yelled. They gathered around as if they’d waited for who knows how long for that very question. They shouted out names of aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, in-laws, outlaws, parents, grandparents and great grandparents faster than I could write them down and pencil in connections. Many prompted nods, frowns, comments. A couple of them had heard tell of another cemetery—one devoted almost exclusively to our relatives from generations back. Nobody could recall having visited it or knowing where it was.
Cemeteries are all around us. Illinois has more than three thousand active ones. Most of them are less than three acres and bury as few as one body per year. They are owned and operated, with varying degrees of care and attention, by families, municipalities, religious groups, or fraternal organizations. (It’s legal in Illinois to bury a body on your own property, though local statutes may differ.) Fewer than two hundred are for-profit enterprises licensed by the Illinois State Comptroller’s Office.
Most organized cemeteries in the Midwest were created in the 1800s in response to urbanization. Churchyard burial grounds had become crowded and expensive to maintain. Bodies buried in any convenient expanse in the cities tainted the groundwater, triggering epidemics of smallpox, cholera and yellow fever. The urban parks movement pushed for open green space to relieve overcrowding, which often meant consolidating corpses in places specifically designated for interments. Cemeteries themselves became tableaus of landscape design and destinations for outdoor recreation.
More: Around Lake Michigan on the Circle Tour
Size and history define many Illinois cemeteries. Chicago’s Rosehill, with more than two hundred thousand graves, is spread across three hundred and fifty acres on the city’s northside. Nearby Graceland covers a hundred and twenty acres. It contains the city’s early moneyed caste and hosts tours of their elaborate monuments, including Eternal Silence, the masterpiece of grieving by sculptor Lorado Taft. Burr Oak, in suburban Alsip, founded in the early years of the Great Migration to accommodate Chicago’s booming Black population, is the final resting place of Emmett Till, but not his original casket.
There are eleven national veterans’ cemeteries in Illinois. The nation’s first federally approved monument honoring lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender veterans—dedicated in 2015—is situated in the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood. The state also has six cemeteries devoted to Confederate soldiers, silent testaments of what happens when a country tears itself apart. Cahokia Mounds, spread across two thousand acres near Collinsville is the site of a one-time Native American metropolis of ten thousand people. It’s a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The burial mound features a set of tall posts that form an astronomical ring, dubbed “Woodhenge.”
As self-contained communities, colleges and universities often have cemeteries. Calvary lies in the northwest quadrant of the Millikin University campus in Decatur. St. Mary’s abuts Elmhurst University’s Langhorst Field. Mount Hope and Roseland at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign sit next to Memorial Stadium. Bob Zuppke, one of the school’s few successful football coaches, is buried directly east and even with the fifty-yard line.
In 1971, I was a freshman at the University of Illinois. I’d spent most of the school year putting psychological distance between my mother and myself, resisting her repeated “suggestions” to come home on the weekends. In mid-April, I met a coed. She took my virginity—though I wouldn’t call it theft—and I took her to Monticello to meet the family on Memorial Day. I believed we would love each other eternally. She dumped me by mid-summer. It was the last time I went to back to visit the graves. Enough with the dead people. Enough about the past. I was a man now. My future is what mattered.
Over the next three decades, I occasionally wondered about my ancestors and the fabled cemetery. Whenever I moved between apartments or cleaned out files, I would find my chicken scratchings from the 1969 coven of cousins. I’d promised the widows back then that I would organize all my notes and send them a copy. I never did. Each time I found them, I’d put back the papers and vow to some day make good on my commitment.
In 2002, my wife Wendy dragged me to England on a vacation to ogle gardens: Hampton Court near London; Sissinghurt near Rye; and Hidcote, in the Cotswolds, where we stayed for a couple days in Chipping Campden. The latter is a center of English wool gathering and, at the time claimed to have the oldest, continuously-operating wool market in the world—more than eight hundred years.
The second day at brunch, Wendy told me to turn around and look at a table behind me. When I did, I saw four clones of my mother and her sister Katie. Same high cheek bones, big teeth, slight overbite, narrow jaw line, pointed chin and vertically oriented oval face. They had the same pale transparent skin, hair styles and even fashion sense as Mom and Katie, neither of whom had ever been to England. I didn’t have the courage to talk to them. I was too creeped out.
Did I mention Mom’s maiden name was Woolington?
Mom entered assisted living a few months later, reminding me of her mortality—and my own. I asked about possible kin in England—the women in the restaurant. “Are we related?”
“Most likely. Could be,” she said. “You never know.”
I did know that when death took her, it would take her history, too. I prodded her to write her life story. I could use it to construct a family tree, connect me to my past. Show my children the lineage that begat them. Perhaps remind them of her—and me, after I’m gone.
A few weeks later, twenty notebook pages of cursive arrived from Mom. The revelatory story covered her first twenty-five years. She was the youngest of seven, one of whom died at ten months. Both her parents died before she was eleven. Katie (eight years older) reared her and Fred during the late 1920s and ‘30s. They were semi-itinerant for months at a time, shuttling for meals and lodging among boarding houses and the homes of more established siblings and cousins in Decatur, Morrisonville, White Heath, and other tiny Central Illinois towns. The autobiography ended when she met “a new beau”—the guy who became Dad. She never wrote again.
Her story sent me down the rabbit hole of genealogy to explore the tangled, indeterminate roots of my family tree. She described her parents as residents of Monticello in the 1890s. Army discharge papers indicated her grandfather Joseph, an Ohio farmer, served in a unit that marched to the sea with General Sherman.
Past and Present of Piatt County, Illinois, Together with Biographical Sketches of Many Prominent and Influential Citizens, a five hundred-page book about Monticello published in 1903, contained the sentence: “In 1820, Mr. Cordell built a cabin on the Woolington place a mile north of Monticello.” No other reference—my ancestors apparently being neither prominent nor influential. Death notices place the Woolingtons in Ohio in the early 1800s. A random letter insisted that the Woolingtons lived in Maryland in the 1700s. Other records show Woolingtons in England in the 1500s
My ancestors had broods of seven, eight or nine children. Some died in early childhood, most lived to their thirties and forties, a few lasted into their sixties or later. (I’m still here at seventy years old.) Until she died in 2004, Mom stayed very close with Fred and Katie. Their children, about my age, are as familiar to me as my sisters and brother. Her older siblings? I went to school with the grandchildren of two of them. Mom’s eldest brother moved away before I was born—I never met him or his numerous children and grandchildren. With so many branches, I lost track of which ones to prune, which ones to explore further. My family tree remained a sapling. Even without documentation, though, I knew in my bones I shared common ancestors with those women in Chipping Campden.
Still no clue of the location of the Woolington cemetery. Not surprising: Illinois has more than fourteen thousand lost cemeteries. That’s the cumulative number registered as “despoiled” in all 102 Illinois counties, according to a 2011 survey. It doesn’t include the burial grounds of Indigenous people, and cemeteries for Black residents that were never registered.
I contacted John Heider, an eighty-three-year-old Monticello resident and cemetery hunter. “At one time, eighty-five percent of us lived on farms and fifteen percent lived in towns. As a result, these little, rural, pioneer cemeteries cropped up either out behind the barn or by the oak tree or near a lake or river or something.” Heider has spent thirty years restoring more than five thousand grave markers in nearly five hundred cemeteries in seven states in the Midwest. “Then our lifestyles changed. Our society changed. We no longer needed them. We had the big-city cemeteries like the Monticello one you and your mom went to. The ones on the farms fell into disrepair. They disappeared. They were abandoned.”
More: My Summer of Steel
Cemeteries were typically subdivided out when the property was sold. The ownership of the tiny plots remained in the hands of former owners who died or their heirs who chose to walk away. The cemeteries languished, stuck in legal limbo, going to seed without regular upkeep. Driving across Illinois, you can still see them—incongruous stands of trees stranded among innumerable rows of corn and soybeans. “We have to remember that these pioneer cemeteries aren’t the immaculate, groomed lawn cemeteries of today.” Heider said. “What I have to do is clear away the brush and trees. If I can find one marker, I can find the rest of them buried there. That’s all I need, just one. I can also tell gender and give you the approximate age of when they passed.”
“How do you do that?” I asked.
“We use dousing or divining. Or what some call doodlebugging.”
“Yeah, it sounds like an old witches’ tale,” Heider said. “There’s no scientific evidence. I’ve had Phi Beta Kappas explain to me why it doesn’t work, but I just smile. If you want to spend $1,500 to go all high tech, have at it. I can find things faster by witching. Even if its hoodoo, I’m going to use it.”
In 2015, on a whim, I searched for “Woolington Cemetery” on Google Maps, which had reached critical mass by then. After the four decades I had spent poking around, Maps found it in a microsecond. Less than a mile north of Monticello: a bright red pin with the words “Woolington Cemetery” directly next to I-72. I’d passed by it hundreds of times driving between Champaign and Decatur during college, and Chicago and Decatur on the frequent family treks to visit Mom and Dad. If only I’d taken the time to stop—or known where to look.
I drove to Monticello a couple weeks later. Maps showed no direct route into the cemetery. I tried country roads to the east and west and dirt paths to the north. I wandered across fields and pastures until ditches, streams, barbed wire, chain link fences or the skeptical stares of curious cows stopped me. I got back onto I-72, pulled over to the shoulder, and saw a makeshift gate at the top of a hill next to the road. I hiked up, stumbled through underbrush, and pushed aside drooping trees.
There it was: a small clearing fronted by a wooden arch carved with “1834 – Barnes Cemetery – 1863.” Wait, Barnes? Staring at it, I figured this had to be it. There couldn’t be another one nearby. If my reckoning was anywhere close to correct, I was standing near or on the Woolington property mentioned in the 1903 book. No matter—Google called it Woolington. That’s good enough for me.
Dozens of markers poked up from matted grass. Most were simple, uncarved stone blocks six inches cubed. Fifteen or so were larger, maybe one foot by two, discolored, their names and dates weathered into illegibility. The few I could read marked the graves of veterans—from the Civil War. I strolled among them, careful to stay between the graves, my mother’s voice echoing in my mind. A post-mounted mailbox of galvanized steel stood in one corner of the cemetery, the outgoing mail flag notably absent. It contained a looseleaf notebook with a visitor sheet, which I signed, and papers prepared by the Piatt County Historical and Genealogical Society with information on the graves’ occupants. Among them, Susannah Barnes, who married John Woolington, my great-great-grandfather’s brother.
The only sounds were the breeze in the trees and muffled traffic on the interstate below. Trees hid the view on three sides, but the stunning vista of the Sangamon River to the east, and the sun filtering through the canopy of leaves gave the glade a remote serenity, a singular dignity. I imagined the voices and the lives. I felt welcomed into a slower, quieter era. I felt connected to and comforted by relatives I never knew.
I walked back down the hill to the car to put away my gloves and hiking boots, still lost in reverie with my ancestors. I stood on the side of the interstate. Cars sped past me, filled with people driving like mad on their way to who knows where. I settled behind the wheel of my own and took a deep breath. My journey was over. A mile—and forty years—away from where it started. ■
Bob Zeni is a writer, editor, and designer in the Chicago area.
Cover art by Chris Harvey.
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.