by Valerie Verkamp
Using ground penetrating radar, experts hope to identify roughly 100 unmarked graves in the Old Parkville Cemetery.
A team of geologists, historians and archivists began the painstaking process of scouring four-acres of land in the old cemetery on Monday May 15.
Old Parkville Cemetery is located on the west side of Highway 9 between downtown Parkville and Riss Lake.
Keith Seramur, a geoarchaeologist, used radar to scan every foot of land up to 40 times.
“The radar goes down and looks for reflections across the grid. We collect these little lines of data and then put into the model,” said Seramur.
The radar depicts where the earth has been disturbed, not necessarily graves or remains, officials said.
The data generates a two-dimensional image that corresponds with what may lie beneath. Covering about a 40-foot grid, dozens of white flags were placed in the soil, representing a potential corner of an unmarked grave.
“Most of the burials are between two to three feet deep and the widths are fairly typical,” said Seramur.
From names found in obituaries published in old newspapers to recovered death certificates, historians say anywhere from 50-100 souls absent of any grave marking have been traced back to the Old Parkville Cemetery.
Carolyn Elwess, an archivist at Park University, said a few of the buried souls were prominent members of the fur trade on the Missouri River. Jim Kipp, whose name is synonymous with two fur-trading companies, was buried in 1880 at the age of 92. His son, Samuel Kipp, was buried nearby.
But there is no account for another local legendary inhabitant. Spencer Cave, a jack-of-all-trades whom the university named black history month after, was born a slave during the Civil War. In 1875, he moved to Parkville and began working for the university, where he was employed for more than 70 years. Experts say he was buried in 1947.
Many people buried there between 1840-1970 worked at Park University, including about 125 African-Americans.
Scott Hageman, assistant dean of natural and applied sciences at Park University, said he would like to honor those early Parkville settlers with an accented marker or memorial.
“It just breaks your heart to realize that there are over 100 people buried here that nobody can track,” said Professor Hageman.
Among the sporadic horizontal limestone markings and poison ivy laced peonies, a beaten walking path running across the backside of the cemetery perhaps contains numerous unmarked graves. Should experts discover unmarked graves in this carved out section, the walking path would be relocated, says Hageman.
It is typical to stumble upon the gravesites of indigent or unknown residents on the backside of cemeteries. Gravestones identifying babies succumbed to colic or other disease epidemics of the 1850's are loosely identified as “baby,” he said.
Hageman said he will not collect DNA from any of the remains buried in the integrated cemetery. Aside from the last burial in the late 1990's, most bodies have disintegrated over the years, leaving no trace behind.
Still, university officials believe recording unmarked graves to honor those pioneers who were buried long ago is important to preserving the history of Parkville.
Elwess said the investigation of unmarked graves has shined more attention on this local link to the past than it has received in decades.
Even city officials at one time appeared to have forgotten about the mere existence of this little city of the dead.
“The city didn't realize the cemetery had never been closed,” said Hageman. “Anyone could have requested to be buried at the Old Parkville Cemetery at the cost of $4.”
It was a graduate civic engagement class taught by Professor Becky Studiville that uncovered the information. Their report has redirected much attention to the city-owned cemetery. From tending to the neglected ground conditions to recovering toppled gravestones, the city has acted in response to the students' initiative.
Elwess said she is thankful for those students and looks forward to having a complete map of the historic cemetery by the middle of July.