Close to their hearts: Sue Fierstine, Sheri Bosch do their part for Brookings-area resting places

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BROOKINGS — When it comes maintenance and records, cemeteries in and around Brookings have always been in good hands, but thanks to Sue Fierstine and Sheri Bosch, those efforts have been further burnished.

The rural Brookings County women have taken it upon themselves to assist in a variety of things, such as mapping, photographing and updating grave information. The tools they use include Excel, online resources such as findagrave.com and ancestry.com, and more.

“A lot of cemeteries just have their cemetery plots mapped down on paper and no backup. I try to plot them out in Excel for ease of printing updating records,” Fierstine said in an interview with the Brookings Register. “I also help digitize the records the cemetery sexton may have in regard to each plot and party.

“For instance, they may have a burial permit, an obituary, funeral card and a purchase record for the plot,” she explained. “All of the plots get recorded in an Excel spreadsheet indicating who the deceased is as well as other family information, and these scanned records get attached to that person so you just have to click on the record and a copy pulls up for easy access.

“This is so handy for someone looking into the records at the cemetery to have,” Fierstine added.

Bosch spends a majority of her Sundays in area cemeteries, so long as the weather cooperates, and online resources, such as the aforementioned findagrave.com, help accomplish her goals.

“People worldwide can request photos of their ancestor’s gravesite. Volunteers are notified of the request and then they go out to search the listed cemetery for the grave,” Bosch told the Brookings Register in an interview. “They photograph and post the pictures on that person’s page. It’s like a cemetery scavenger hunt. Once I, or another volunteer, had photographed all requests in the area, I decided I’d start to map Brookings county cemeteries.”

She said that, with the help of several volunteers, cemetery sextons and Lisa Friedrich at Brookings Monument, she’s been able to photograph entire cemeteries, map them, and add pages to cemeteries for people buried without a stone.

“I’ve found most area sextons to be willing to cooperate in my quest,” Bosch said, adding that she’s currently working in the White and Arlington cemeteries, along with filling requests.

She further noted that, for the past three years, she’s contacted Brookings cemeteries in an attempt to have signage put up that would identify the blocks of each.

“This information is valuable to people when searching for relatives' graves. Instead of searching an entire cemetery, they can zero in on the block their ancestor is buried,” Bosch said. “By looking on Find a Grave, you can find the location of a grave and use that along with signage.”

Her efforts have paid off. “I’m proud to say that Greenwood will be installing signage this spring,” she said.

Driving forces

So what drives Fierstine and Bosch to do this? Well, it’s a family connection for the former, and a fascination with burial places that goes all the way back to childhood for the latter.

“While working on my family history — my uncle Walt Lucas is the sexton for my (parents’) cemetery and his records were all on paper and over 20 years old and getting very messy,” Fierstine said. “We also recognized that if there was a fire, all these records would be destroyed and there would be no back up.”

Her parents are Ralph and Phyllis Van Kempen, and the resting place in question is Christ the King Cemetery in Browerville, Minnesota.

“So, we plotted out the cemetery in Excel, started the spreadsheet, entered all the data and scanned all the documents to attach to the spreadsheet,” Fierstine said. “Now I have a backup and the church has a backup should anything happen to the original.”

Bosch described herself as a taphophile — a person who is drawn to cemeteries and memorials.

“I've loved cemeteries since I was a child. They are peaceful, beautiful, and full of history. In fact, I find a cemetery a wonderful place for a picnic while I'm working in one. I've learned to travel with a lawn chair so when I need to rest I can sit in the shade and enjoy the peace,” she said. “I've always been interested in genealogy. When I started (with) ancestry.com, Find a Grave kept coming up. Once I learned I could help people and wander around graveyards, I was hooked.”

Being immersed as she is in cemeteries, it’s only natural that Bosch would also come across some interesting history — including a murder, turbulence caused by disease outbreaks and much more.

“Cemeteries hold a wealth of history. Some stones will be marked with how the person died. There’s a stone in a local cemetery that states the woman had been murdered. Over the course of a couple of years I learned the story behind the engraving,” she explained. “By reading the stones in another local cemetery I’ve learned the years when different diseases swept through our county. I’ve become aware of how many women have died in childbirth through the years, some of them with their newborn.”

There were interesting findings about marriages as well, along with an unexpected familial connection.

“I also discovered that women who lose their first husband and marry again, will more than likely, be buried beside the first husband,” Bosch said. “I’ve also discovered how some local families are interwoven. One day at coffee I found out that I was distantly related to the owner of the coffee shop I’d been going to for years.

Uncovering the past

Both women had some practical advice for folks who might be interested in uncovering information about their family lines.

“Start with your own immediate family and start working backwards. Ask questions on where they lived, if they have any documents you can see,” Fierstine advised. “Look at the funeral home records, as they have to document a lot of stuff, and the courthouse has a lot of documents. The local genealogical societies have collected a lot of data, too, and can help with searches.”

Bosch dipped her toes into the proverbial water via ancestry.com. “There are several sources out there that you can use. The internet is an endless resource.”

She added, “A lot of the sites are now starting to charge for information. One suggestion I’d make to people using any of the sites is to copy all forms that you’re able to find and save them to your computer. If you stop making payments to the sites you will no longer have access to those forms.”

Trying times

Unfortunately, it’s not all peaches and cream for Brookings-area cemeteries, especially in the wake of the May 2022 derecho that ripped through the region.

“Some area cemeteries are starting to hurt financially. The derecho two years ago hurt them even more,” Bosch noted. “Greenwood and First Lutheran in Brookings received horrible damage to trees and gravestones. An incredible number of trees were lost.

“Along with everything else, the cost of cemetery care has skyrocketed. Several cemeteries in eastern South Dakota are so low on funds that they are only mowed a few times per years,” she added.

Bosch further focused on the challenges facing the cemeteries, including fallen branches that remain in place until someone comes along to pick them up, along with roads that are becoming impacted with weeds and beginning to crumble.

“I was in Huron a few years ago and saw first-hand a cemetery that had no funds remaining. Perpetual care was a great idea in its time, but that care continues to rise in cost,” Bosch said. “All cemeteries I’ve visited take donations. Please consider giving for continued care.”

— Contact Mondell Keck at mkeck@brookingsregister.com.