Cemetery Update Services

Digging Up History

Written by Kelly Chandler Staff Writer - 2014-09-10
Sumneytown, Pennsylvania

 

Unique Process Unearths the Past at Sumneytown Cemetery

What do two local congregations, a cemetery dating back to the early 1800s and shaving cream all have in common? The answer is a couple from Minnesota – Debbie and Mike Wiczek.

Recently hired by Frieden's Union Cemetery Association based in Sumneytown, the Wiczeks offer an unusual set of services – they map cemeteries for a living. They have traveled across the U.S., in 25 different states to be exact, to document cemeteries for churches, cities and private entities.

"Many times these cemeteries are run by volunteers and they get to the point where mistakes are made [in the records]," said Mike Wiczek. "Over the years it gets to be a mess." Debbie, who said the business was borne out of her own efforts to help a friend locate his father's grave, said many of her clients are simply looking to deal with an ever-growing number of inquiries by people researching geneology. As is the case with Frieden's cemetery, located on Church Road in Sumneytown, associations often have only shoddy records in worn hardbound books to refer to. So when people call looking for their loved ones, Evey Koffel, secretary of Friedens, said she is sometimes left to walk the cemetery looking for gravesites. Koffel, who volunteers, classified the books as not "user-friendly." They hail from the time when Frieden's UCC and St. John's Lutheran met under one roof at Friedens Union. So the association turned to the Wiczeks, who also did work for them back in 2007.

"We are afraid we're going to lose the information on those stones," Koffel said of the headstones that date back to the Civil War era. "We don't want to lose that local history." She noted the association only has records of who purchased each plot, and in many cases the purchaser doesn't match up with the individual buried there.

The Wiczeks are currently documenting the older half of the cemetery to complement the work they were hired to do several years ago. Set atop a picturesque hillside, they combed about four acres of gravesites, row by row, Monday afternoon. Mike pins the sites, some which don't match up with markers put in by the family, and Debbie writes all the information from the headstone. But many of those headstones, weathered and eroded, are tough to read. And that is where the shaving cream comes in. The couple credits this process to a former client, Ken Esser, from Pine Bluff, Wisconsin. They spray the stones with shaving cream, which doesn't harm the surface, and then use a squeegee to spread and wipe off the excess. The shaving cream fills in the indents from the engraving and the results are names and dates that pop out with clarity.

"It's slick," said Debbie. "It saves us hours and hours and really enhances the records. Some of these stones are so worn that we would have ended up just having to walk away from."

After documenting all the details from the stone, including any inscriptions on occupation, manner of death and veterans status, Debbie inputs all the data into a drafting program. Also utilizing Microsoft Excel, she produces a clear map of the cemetery which can be searched alphabetically, chronologically, by lot owner or by veteran's status.

The latest phase included approximately 2,000 sites. Friedens will get hard and digital copies of the mapping, which will make their record inquiries and future upkeep a breeze.

With more and more people looking into their heritage, services like those offered by the Wiczeks are in demand.

"We're living longer and you come to an age where you think about those who came before you," said Mike of the interest in geneology both locally and on a national level.

"I know the older I get the more amazing my parents become," said Debbie. "It gives people some closure. It's about knowing your roots. It's about who am I and why am I here?"

Frieden's Union Cemetery Association is currently soliciting funds to pay for the cemetery mapping project. Anyone interested in giving can mail donations, made out to Friedens Union Cemetery, to Friedens Union Cemetery Association, c/o Evey Koffel, 1563 Markley Rd., Pennsburg, PA. 18073.

For more information on the Wiczeks and Cemetery Updating Services, visit www.cemeteryrecordservices.com or call (507) 453-0811.

 


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