In 2013, I buried a young woman with her ancestors in the St. James’ Episcopal Cemetery near Bear Creek on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Three years later, in 2016, the young woman’s adoptive mother asked to have her body disinterred and moved to another cemetery.
So, I contacted local family, enrolled members of Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, and at the same time, I contacted the Tribal Chairman, and they all said, NO. So I called the adoptive mother and the funeral home she was dealing with — Kesling in Mobridge — and told them under no circumstances was she to be moved. I reminded Kesling Funeral Home that they could not enter our cemetery for any reason without our knowledge and consent.
The adoptive mother threatened me with lawsuits. She tried to go behind my back (and over my head) and talk with my supervisor, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota, but the Diocese deferred to the local family and said, No. The answer, from the family who buried her, from the Diocese, and from the Tribe remained, NO.
The young woman made contact with her biological family here on the Cheyenne River, and was welcomed home. She developed a deep and close bond with her sister.
In accordance with her last wishes, it was her sister, Carol Charging Thunder, who was contacted when the young woman died; it was her sister who called me and made all the funeral arrangements. It is her sister to whom the death certificate was issued.
I didn’t hear anything more after the summer of 2016. Then, when I returned from a sabbatical in October 2017, there was a letter stating the adoptive mother had been given a State permit to go dig her up. I visited the cemetery –and indeed, her grave site was disturbed, as were the graves around hers.
I called Kesling Funeral Home in Mobridge, and indeed, they had entered our cemetery against the express wishes of the family and Tribe and Church, and dug her up in August of 2017.
I cannot express the gut wrenching despair… the burning indignity… the horror I feel. Because not only was the young woman dug up, but then she was cremated. She was violated. Her wishes were ignored.
I am told that there is nothing, lawfully, that the Church can do to open the eyes of Kesling Funeral Home –to show them that what they did was horrifying, deceitful and disrespectful, and was in lock-step with centuries of racism and oppression in violating the lives, the land and the graves of the First Peoples.
And, yes. I believe that Kesling acted without integrity –waiting until I was away to violate the grave of this young woman. Kesling knew the answer was NO, but they did it anyway.
Kesling has shown no respect for the hard and holy work of burial, and have demonstrated that they will ignore the wishes of a family doing this hard and holy work. And Kesling has shown that it will trespass and violate the sanctity of our cemeteries.
I strongly condemn the actions of the State of South Dakota in issuing the permit to disinter. I condemn the actions of Dewey County in not notifying the Church until after the damage had been done (we received the letter three weeks after the permit had been issued, and by that time the grave had already been violated).
I condemn the actions of Kesling Funeral Home in Mobridge for willfully ignoring the family and the Church and Tribe. I condemn the actions of the adoptive mother in her decision to disturb a grave when she had been told not to do so.
My prayers continue for the family who continue to feel spiritual violation. I thank all who worked very hard to document this violation, to publish and get the word out there, and who testified at the State Legislature to change the law, so that no other grave on any Reservation in South Dakota could be violated in the future.
It is not my place here – an old white woman from some other place — to push this issue. But, none of this is about me. It IS about a Lakota woman who was not safe even in her own grave. I speak out only with the family’s permission.
And, I assure you, as a priest, I feel this violation in my own spirit, in my dreams, in my prayers.
So, I ask, is there any way, anyone will help return this young woman to her rightful resting place among her ancestors? From her grave she has changed State law, but will anyone step forward to give her the honor she deserves, and respect her wishes to be buried with her ancestors? Will noone be held responsible for digging up her grave?
She needs our help so that she may rest in peace.
Thank you for hearing me out.