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St. Michael’s Cemetery, Beltrees
History of St. Michael’s Cemetery at Beltrees, Illinois
Prepared by Thomas E. Bechtold, January 2005, dedicated to his father Joseph M. Bechtold.
The St. Michael’s Cemetery at Beltrees is located in the lower middle of Section 14, Elsah township, within Jersey County of the State of Illinois. The cemetery was established as a final resting place for the deceased members of St. Michael’s Catholic Church at Beltrees and other members of the Beltrees community. The land for this cemetery, consisting of one and one quarter acres, was granted to the church by warranty deed from Mathias J. Poerzgen of the County of Jersey, State of Illinois, to Bishop Peter Joseph Baltes, of the leity of Alton, County of Madison, State of Illinois for the sum of Two Dollars on the Seventeenth of March, 1877. The land for St. Michael’s Church also came from Mathias Poerzgen. On the 1880 Elsah census, Mr. Poerzgen is listed as 50 years of age, a teacher and his birth place as Prussia. Mr. Poerzgen is listed in the St. Michael’s church records as having died May 20, 1894, however, there is no indication he is buried on St. Michael’s cemetery.
Initially no specific records were kept regarding actual burial sites other than permanent head stones. Many of the early grave markers were probably made of wood and have since disappeared. Because of this, there are no doubt unknown grave sites which may never be identified.
Beginning July 1, 193 1, a “Cemetery Record” booklet was begun by church parishioner, Henry Bechtold, in which a written record was kept of each burial in the cemetery. These recordings were made in a booklet issued by the State of Illinois, Department of Public Health, Division of Vital Statistics. The booklet is a Form V.S. No. 28 and provides spaces to record Date of Burial, Name of Decedent, Place of Death, Date of Death, Location of Grave, Undertaker Name, Undertaker Address, Burial Permit No. and Registration District No. One problem still remained, the descriptions entered in the booklet for “Location of Grave” were very general, such as “North Center” or “South End”. Again, the actual location of a grave site was mostly by location of a permanent head stone or from someone’s memory.
In the early 1950’s an effort was undertaken to clear the cemetery of all weeds and brush and begin a regiment for its up keep. Since this time the cemetery has been mowed and trimmed on a routine basis and is noted for its neat and well kept appearance. It was often said that prior to this, the first effort when there was to be a burial was to cut a path through the brush to the planned burial site.
In the mid 1960’s, Joseph Bechtold of St. Michael’s Parish, along with assistance from Ben Staten of Staten Funeral Home in Alton, Illinois, assumed the task of properly “laying out” the cemetery in a grid pattern to formalize the burial and location process. Joseph spent many hours preparing markers that would ultimately be buried in the ground at the comers of each of the lots. He made these markers, some 136, by filling Pork and Bean or similar size cans with concrete and then, using number stamp tools, stamped a number in the top of the soft concrete. These would eventually number from 1 to 136. Then with the help of Mr. Staten, he measured the cemetery off in 20 foot square lots, using the North and East fence line of the cemetery as reference points. As the 20 foot squares were determined a concrete marker was placed in the Northeast comer of the square. The theory behind this was to create a grave “lot” that would contain 8 grave sites. Each grave site is 5 feet wide and 10 feet long. Joseph also created a map of the cemetery based on the grid layout and recorded every known grave site. This map was also used to record new grave sales and burials which now provided a means to determine the exact location of burial sites.
In the early 1980’s a cemetery committee was established by the parishioners of St. Michael’s to oversee the upkeep of the cemetery and maintain current burial records. This committee is also in charge of grave site sales and the layout of grave sites for burials and works with designated funeral directories to coordinate internments The committee currently consist of William Finkes, Anthony Rieger and Thomas Bechtold.
In 1998 the fence around the cemetery was falling down and in need of repair. Letters were sent by the cemetery committee to families with loved ones buried in the cemetery asking for donations to help defray the cost of a new fence. The response was overwhelming, raising more than $1,600.00. Members of the parish worked several Saturdays removing the old fence and installing a new one along with a new drive through gate and walk through gate.
In the late 1990’s decorative shrubbery and two concrete benches were installed around the cross located in the center of the cemetery. These items were donated to the cemetery by parish members Laura Bechtold and Paul Bechtold. A Blessed Virgin Mary statue and grotto was donated by parish member Betty Smith and also placed by the cross. These same concrete benches would later become involved in a very unusual scenario.
Beginning in 2001, and each year thereafter, there has been an outdoor Mass celebration on the cemetery on Memorial Day in honor of the deceased and specifically the veterans. There are currently 17 veterans buried in the cemetery. This Mass is a very moving and beautiful tribute. In addition, the VFW honor guard from Alton, led by Charlie Bechtold, performs a ceremony on each Memorial Day. This ceremony involves the lowering of the flag to half mast, a prayer reading, a reading of the names of the veterans, a 21 gun salute and the playing of taps. Small American flags are also placed on veterans graves by Paul Bechtold on Memorial Day, 4th of July and Veterans Day.
Photo submitted by Marty Crull.