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High-tech scanning helps map cemetery dating to early 1800s

August 8, 2018

WILKINSON, Ind. (AP) — Simmons Cemetery is tranquil, peaceful. The out-of-the-way patch of ground outside of Wilkinson is littered with headstones and monuments dating back to the early 1800s. It receives few living visitors on most days.

But one guest arrived this month on a mission: that of preserving the heritage and legacy of Hancock County’s generations past. Even working each day in a literal field of lifelessness, Ken Strozier said he believes places like Simmons are some of the most dynamic spots on earth.

While many consider pioneer cemeteries as little more than abandoned patches of land for the long dead to rest, Strozier has a special fondness for old graveyards, though not for any direful obsession with the dead, he said.

Rather, his business, Omega Mapping Services, specializes in identifying unmarked graves for people who died many years ago, he said. Not only does this help the caretakers of cemeteries to maximize their acreage, but it allows descendants of the deceased to locate exact spots of sacred ground, Strozier said.

Strozier, a Georgia native, was contacted by Cindy Cable and Bill Westfall of the Simmons Cemetery Association to renovate the area by marking and mapping out the locations of unmarked graves scattered across the grounds.

The board hired Strozier to get the cemetery records in order, so they know how many people have been buried and specifically where, Westfall said. It’s important to the Simmons family’s descendants to be able to locate the exact burial spots, which are sometimes hard to find; unfortunately, unmarked graves are always created accidentally with enough time and weathering, Westfall said.

“Over the past 100, 150 years, people may have been buried out there with nothing but a wooden cross marking their spot,” Westfall said. “The crosses are no longer there, and over the years, with people mowing the lawns of the cemetery, things get broken and pieces get put in the wrong spot.”

Cable places value in preserving the ground that was designated more than 150 years ago for use as a cemetery. Cable has multiple ancestors buried at Simmons, she said. Strozier’s mapping services do much more than find lost graves.

“We’re protecting our heritage and promoting our legacy, Cable said. “We’re going back 150 years for people who have been buried there for so long, but we’re also providing something for the next three generations, who will have a new tool for research.”

Strozier’s career takes him from coast to coast. He crosses the country in an RV that serves as his vehicle, office and home, often opting to simply stay the night in the cemeteries where he works, he said. He’s seen a hundred spots like the humble grounds in Wilkinson, having mapped cemeteries in Florida, New Jersey, North Dakota, Texas and everywhere in between, he said.

But the quiet feeling of harmony the air has in such places always feels the same, he said.

It was just another work day for Strozier as he glided across that hallowed ground at Simmons last month, taking in the summer sun with an amiable smile. The man said he never ceases to enjoy soaking up the centuries of history evident all around him.

He pushed along a rolling sonogram, a unique device equipped with ground penetrating radar. Strozier combines his radar screenings with GPS and blends the two technologies together, giving him the ability to precisely measure an air pocket several feet underground, head to toe. Strozier’s training and experience allows him to interpret the readings based on how the radio waves interact with the materials in the ground; by looking at a screen he can figure out the material a casket is made of, or whether or not a grave was meant for an adult or a child, he said.

Strozier takes pictures of the various headstones he finds — often piled up carelessly next to trees or concealed by overgrown grass — that he suspects belong to some of the unmarked grave sites. He sends them to Omega Mapping Services’ grave trackers, who transpose and organize the information, allowing Strozier to develop a grid-system that families can use to pinpoint the location of a buried relative.

And Strozier loves what he does.

“I have trademarked a word, and the word is ‘cemeterian,’” Strozier said in a warm southern drawl. “People who are cemeterians are born; they don’t choose it, it’s not a hobby to them. They volunteer to go to these places, not for the macabre, but because they connect viscerally to their heritage. Someway, somehow, that’s how it all started for me. I love the history.”

“They have a passion for this place, and it has everything to do with the people who are here,” he added, gesturing to the sea of monuments dotting the grass. “Cemeterians get it. It gives them chill bumps to talk about a place like this. Genealogists will spend thousands of man hours researching, just trying to find a name and a date. They’re trying to connect with that heritage on behalf of the legacy.”

Strozier, a former pastor and theologian, said he knows where the deceased now rest, and it’s not underground, he said. In fact, their physical beings probably aren’t there either; except in cases where a body is embalmed, after 75 years most bodies, caskets and even bones decompose, leaving nothing in the spot where they were buried, he said. After this long, there’s nothing there except perhaps the sole of a shoe, a button or bits of the casket, he said.

But even after everything breaks down and decomposes, the air pocket is still there, Strozier said. And that’s what he looks for. He looks carefully, he said, because it’s the spot of ground itself that holds meaning.

“That point in the ground right there, it’s important,” Strozier said, gazing at a patch of earth beneath a large cedar tree. “Even though there might not even be a casket there anymore, the family needs a place to go and remember. Even if you scatter the ashes over a certain area, that’s OK. There needs to be a place of remembrance; there’s a value in that for the human psyche.

“Think of the mothers that came out here and buried their tears in this dirt,” he continued. “That’s holy ground. Every one of these monuments represent families gathered around on an intentional basis to grieve. I think that’s where it makes my heart come alive, when I find one of these unmarked burials. I put them back on the map, literally and figuratively.”

After 12 years of mapping cemeteries, Strozier has spent time dwelling on ways to better serve “cemeterians” interested in continuing genealogy research. Hundred-year-old headstones are timeless, beautiful and historic, but they’re cold and worn, he said. So he aims to make gravesites more accessible and colorful for those interested in exploring their ancestral history.

Strozier has worked with a group of software engineers to develop what he calls the “Omega Mark,” a smartphone app that allows a user to scan a QR code on a special medallion placed on a headstone. The user will be given access to data on the person connected to the monument they’re visiting, data that the family can upload at the time of the burial, he said. They can include a biography, photographs, scanned historical documents or maybe even video feed, he said.

You’ll be able to see a person’s whole life when you visit their burial site, Strozier said.

The Omega Mark is Strozier’s most recent attempt to digitize the world of “cemeterians” like him, he said. He hopes that his work will become commonplace to the next generation to better-preserve the timeline, he said.

After all, that’s the whole point of his mission, he said.

“I preserve cemeteries, that’s what I do,” Strozier said with a shrug and a smile. “Every cemetery has a story. You’ve just got to listen for it.”


Source: Daily Reporter


Information from: (Greenfield) Daily Reporter, http://www.greenfieldreporter.com

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