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Long Rapids Township Cemetery

This past Tuesday, I had a chat with a gravedigger.

John Tinker, the sexton at Long Rapids Township Cemetery, and his assistant, Don Minton, dig all the graves there. Up until a couple years ago, they dug them by hand, but neither John nor Don are getting any younger.

Part of the time I spent talking with John was under a chestnut tree, a grand old tree planted in 1915 to mark the grave of Jacob Niergarth. After all these years, both Jacob and his tree are still there.

This old tree is stout, stands tall, is fully leafed, and green. Loaded with budding young chestnuts, it stands proudly. The only tree allowed — it’s the roots, you know.

I failed to take a measurement or even hazard a guess as to which is taller, that solitary chestnut or the flagpole. The pole was purchased and installed by the Bill McEwen family. Bill and his family have relatives and friends buried in the cemetery, many of whom had served in the armed forces, but there was no cemetery flag. Now there is one.

Long Rapids folks are like that, they tend to fill in the gaps.

The Niergarth tree and the McEwen flag pole are the first things you’ll notice when approaching the cemetery. There’s a short shed, but the rest is lawn with gravestones on gently rolling slopes, with paved roads providing access. Shrubs aren’t allowed — roots again — but flowers are.

As prominent as the flag pole and tree are, they’re not the cemetery’s most distinguishing features. After you spend a little time there, you’ll notice other aspects come to the fore; they set the cemetery’s tone.

First, what’s clearly evident — this cemetery is well cared-for. It’s nothing if not neat and peaceful. Usually, it’s mowed and trimmed weekly, so the pride is always expressed. Don runs the mower. John does the trimming.

But, there’s more, a reverence, care provided beyond just keeping things tidy. To get the trimming done the way it needs to be, John visits each grave individually, responding to its unique trimming requirements. It’s a pause that allows him to say hello.

There’s not a grave site John doesn’t know the idiosyncrasies of, hasn’t spent some time with, or can’t straight away take you to.

The Sunday before Memorial Day, Sunday school classes from the Long Rapids Congregational Church place flags on all the graves of veterans. There are 140 of them who served in the Spanish-American War through the intervening five wars and the Gulf War.

John appreciates any help he can get placing all those flags, especially that of his great-grandson, Bentley Hall. All 18 months of Bentley was fully engaged this year as he placed four flags — having been pointed in the right direction by his mother.

It’s a pointing job she will find more demanding as time goes on and Bentley ages.

But it’s not all pride, neatness, reverence, and getting things pointed in the right direction. Recently, a lady purchased a grave site next to a cemetery road. She wanted it there so she could get out and square dance on Saturday nights. I asked John if there were any regulations against that. He said no — so long as all the dancers were cemetery residents.

Many graves carry the same family name; Lumsden, McEwen, MacArthur, Munro, Christenson, Lewis, Atkinson, Thomson, Himes, and others. My old friend, Clifford “Bud” Jewel is there. No finer man deserves his rest.

Bob Sheldon is buried there. He of Sheldon’s grocery with an ashtray on its counter filled to overflowing with cigarette butts. Bob always made sure that ashtray was positioned directly below the state-mandated sign that read: “No Smoking In This Retail Food Establishment.”

Santa Claus is there, as well. Large, rolly-polly, white-bearded, Floyd King was his name when he was playing or coaching baseball, but his grave marks him as “Santa.”

The Long Rapids Cemetery was once a gravel pit. They’ve done a fine job with the conversion.

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs weekly on Saturdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.

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