Friday, November 5, 2010


When you return to the homeland of your ancestors, you want to try to understand as much as you can about their lives. Ironically, that often means learning as much as you can about their deaths.

Armed with great documentation of my German ancestors I wanted to visit the farms where they lived, the towns where they worked and shopped, the churches that were the center of their lives, and of course, their graveyards.

The Germans have different traditions about burial and graveyards than we do. It wasn't hard to find the "current" cemetery where residents of Holdorf are buried. Yet when we asked Werner where it was likely that my ggg-grandfather was buried, he pointed to the paved terrace surrounding the church. At one point, the graveyard for church members occupied the area just outside the church which had been surrounded by a rock wall. Werner remembered the graveyard being dug up when the church updated its heating and air conditioning systems. The rock wall came down and brick pavers now surround the church. If you look carefully at this wedding picture from 1938, you can see what was the church cemetery beyond the far wall.

In Germany, gravesites are not "permanent." Often they are rented for a period of 20-30 years. In the Holdorf area, many of the plots are family plots. Family members are expected to maintain the site. There is no such thing as "perpetual care." If descendants move away or emigrate, it is not long before the plot is "recycled" for use by another family. The goal of burial is for the body to decompose as quickly as possible and the science of decomposition is studied. There has been some concern lately about "waxy" bodies that have resisted decomposition and the Germans are looking for solutions to this problem. for an interesting article on this issue, click on this link: Waxy Bodies

Even monuments are not permanent. Bill and I spent about an hour in the Neuenkirchen Cemetery looking for a monument that had been placed in honor of his cousin, Fr. Joseph Duerstock. He was the long-time pastor of Old St. Mary Church in Over-the-Rhine. Another genealogist even sent me a picture of this large memorial. It has now been removed.

Going through the Sts. Peter and Paul Cemetery, we saw many family plots with surnames that are common in Cincinnati. These include: Rehling, Borgerding, Wolkerding, Ortmann and Hilgefort. Bill has Hilgeforts in his line. We found that descendants of the von der Heides and Hilgeforts lived in the same farming community in the 1850s.

I started this post with the family part for "Heinrich von der Heide" -- one of our family names. Little did I know when I took the picture that we would later meet the family who owns this plot. Better yet -- we are "cousins"!

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