On Saturday, Oct. 6, Guy Gilbert of Promise took me and Wendell Phillips Jr. on a tour of the St. Mary’s Episcopal Church grave yard where many families from the area have relatives buried, including the Phillips’ family.
While visiting the grave sites, Gilbert pointed out that some of the graves and their markers are very old, and even those that are newer may be hard to read or may be damaged after years of flooding and other adverse weather conditions.
Espicopal Priest in Charge Margaret Watson of the Cheyenne River Episcopal Mission of Eagle Butte said that while the church has the means to keep the grounds cleared and mowed at the 10 or 11 grave yards the church has across the reservation, there are many graves that were marked with plastic or wooden markers which have not stood the test of time.
In Promise, Watson said that there are also graves of people who chose to be buried outside the fence line, but the line was recently expanded, and those people are or may be in the fence line now.
In addition, when the Old Agency was flooded, many graves were relocated to the St. Mary’s grave yard, but no map laying out their location was made or survived, and so there may be more unmarked graves in the area.
Watson said that she is trying to work with Hobart College in Geneva, New York to bring ground penetrating equipment out to the grave yards to locate all of the graves and mark them even if they are unsure who is buried in them.
Watson said discovering who is buried where will also require families to come and visit the sites, letting Watson know where their relatives are buried so that the location of their burial sites can be better documented and preserved.
Watson said one idea she had for marking the graves without marble headstones is to pour a standing block of cement and etching the name of the deceased in the cement before it dries. This would be a longer lasting alternative to the plastic and wood markers.
Watson said that it is people like Gilbert who are most helpful in identifying family plots at these old grave yards, especially since they can help younger generations who no longer live in the areas where their ancestors were raised locate where those ancestors are buried.
People who know the location of graves in any of the Espiscopal cemetaries across CRST can contact the church to help Watson and others ensure all sacred burial sites are properly marked.