Sexton and researcher work to identify unmarked graves

Ted Wendling, Contributing Writer

Photo by Ted Wendling

Fife Lake Cemetery Sexton John Kelley is shown kneeling next to stakes identifying the burial site of John and William Gilde.


FIFE LAKE – As John Kelley, the sexton at Fife Lake Cemetery, walks the hallowed grounds of his 22-acre cemetery he is haunted by knowledge that the cemetery contains the remains of hundreds of people whose survivors left no above-ground evidence that they ever existed.

Employing the use of a borrowed ground-penetrating radar system and supplemented by death certificates, burial permits and other archival information, Kelley and freelance researcher Lisa Plamondon have painstakingly documented the remains and identities of 314 people who lie in unmarked graves.

No headstone, nameplate or other marker. Not even a rock. In a village whose population is fewer than 500, that’s a lot of people who died without a trace. And it amounts to nearly one-quarter of the 1,385 people whose final resting place is Fife Lake Cemetery.

Today, the locations of the 314 bodies are marked by wooden stakes that include the names and year of death of each of the deceased. Near the crest of a hill are two stakes marking the bodies of John, 13, and William Gilde, 8, who, according to a 1921 Kalkaska Leader story, went rabbit hunting in December of that year, got lost in a blizzard and froze to death. The boys’ despondent parents later moved to Grand Rapids and it wasn’t until recently that Kelley and Plamondon discovered that the brothers were buried in Fife Lake Cemetery next to their grandparents, Adriant and Minnie Gilde.

In another section of the cemetery are three stakes identifying the locations of David, George and Baby Strahan. George, it was discovered, died in 1923 at age 4 from hepatitis. David died in the year of his birth, 1921, and Baby Strahan died from a premature birth in 1911.

Fife Lake Cemetery’s dead include 48 Civil War veterans, 14 of whose graves are unmarked. Kelley and Plamondon are working with the Veteran’s Administration to identify the anonymous soldiers.

Kelley also operates a small grave-marker business that is fittingly called A Monumental Task. A Fife Lake native who returned home from Florida seven years ago, he sometimes feels overwhelmed by the enormity of this undertaking.

In addition to identifying the locations of the unmarked graves, he has been trying to clean and repair some of the cemetery’s crumbling and lichen-covered headstones; he has been busy planting myrtle, spirea bushes and other plants to beautify the grounds; and he is trying to make improvements to property that surrounds a five-acre pond next to the cemetery so that people who choose to have their cremains sprinkled in the pond can have their final wish honored.

“When I came here, I said this was a six- to 10-year project,” Kelley stated. “Well, I’ve got another five years to go.

“This is a major historical part of Fife Lake,” he added. “It’s a museum of the no longer living. It’s our history.”

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