The GraveDigger’s Daughter
Marlene S. Bentz Badger — The Grave Digger’s Daughter
Born Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1958
Marlene contributes to the Gravediggersgenealogy.com website through her many years of research. She lends advice and guidance, and we’re hoping to post some of her hard work in cemetery recording this summer. Here is her story…
“I’ve spent my life wondering who I am, where I came from, and why I am the way I am. These questions have haunted me since I was five years old, when my brother was old enough to be “my Father’s boy” and my sister danced with the attention of my mother. Life, as I understood it, seemed to suddenly change. Usurped and emotionally cast adrift, I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong, and that no one wanted me or needed me. Left to my own devices, I found my security by spending time walking in the woods, watching the animals, or playing with our numerous pets/animals on our small farm. And then I found the cemeteries…
On Sunday’s after church when my mother stayed late for her meetings with other members, I loved to roam the graveyard, wondering who those people were and what they were like. I thought some of those folks in there might be related to me because we shared the same last name. At times I thought up stories about these interesting souls to pass the time. Out of curiosity I once asked my dad if we were related to them, and his answer was “No, they are all dead”. That struck me as a strange answer, and I never understood it since his parents were buried in that cemetery.
As a young adult I was still curious about those people, and maintained the love of spending time in the cemetery. Oddly enough, my father became the grave digger of several area cemeteries, and I would go with him when I could. I read the names and dates, and tried to figure out the families, why some died young, or within a few days of each other. I realized that being a Scorpio everything needed to be analyzed and researched fully, and playing detective was something I enjoyed.
Later on, my mother gave me a very small handwritten version of her family tree compiled by my Aunt. At the time, I was too busy being a young wife, mother, and business owner to investigate this information further. I set it aside and got onto the task of living.
When my daughter’s were grown, and my parents both still alive, I finally had a chance to start working on my family tree. My mother was excited to help me, so she planned trips for us to go to cemeteries where she knew family members were buried. Other times she arranged trips to meet some of her cousins and find out more about her lines. This was great, and finally my mother and I had something in common. I never spent much time with her because she already had a daughter to teach all the “girly” things to. Now, all these years later, we enjoyed a special bond, and although it was fleeting, I savor every moment of it.
Working with my mother only took me so far. With the family interviews exhausted, I still wanted to know more about the Bentz’s in the Barrens cemetery, since that is where my curiosity really came from for this endeavor. As I tried to research this line, I could only get back as far as my great-grandfather. I found the Bentz’s were stubborn and very temperamental, not helpful at all. Information was just becoming available on the internet, but searching was long and tedious and a lot simply wasn’t yet there, or the index features were far from complete.
After months of searching, I found a connection on-line with a Bentz descendant from Connecticut who had been researching the Bentz family. This amazing fellow helped me connect my great-grandfather with my great-great-grandfather and sent me a great deal of information. I was ecstatic! I thought I was finally on my way. As I looked through the material I discovered that he had lots of names and some dates; but, most of the information did not carry sources to prove his theories. When I got to my father in his tree…well, he was listed with the wrong name, along with errors on some of the other family members I was familiar with. Once again, I felt like I ran into a brick wall…but then I realized I really hadn’t, I just needed to take the information I received and PROVE it. This meant I needed to do a lot more searching on-line, with many trips to cemeteries, libraries, and historical societies added in for good measure.
As I searched for records of the cemeteries l found out that churches do not have lists of who is buried in their cemeteries, only the purchaser of the lots. As I continued the search I found that cemeteries could be off limits to researches if they are on private land, some have been flooded to make reservoirs for water supplies, and others have been left go to the point the owners don’t know they even exist.
I sat back and thought about this mess of missing information. I finally decided that there was only one thing to do, record the cemetery stones myself so I would have the information and at the same time, create something lasting for future generations. Where to start? Barren’s Cemetery, of course! As I worked through the cemetery, I found that ALL the Bentz’s and many other last names in the cemetery were related to me, nearly 75% ! What a thrill it was to complete the recording of the stones. As I worked through the cemetery, I mentally thanked the industrious people during the depression years who recorded the cemeteries at that time so I could include people where stones no longer existed or were illegible at the time of my recording around the turn of this century. Friends, family members and a Girl Scout troop also pitched in to help. In the end, the historical societies I gave copies to were just as thrilled with the information as I was. I posted my data on-line through PAGENWEB. Recently I found they changed their web page and that some of the information I sent them no longer exists in their new format. What a shame!
As I continued to research my family and knowing what I knew about the recordings of the Barrens Cemetery, I came to find out the Dillsburg Cemetery was the same way. I began recording that cemetery nearly 10 years ago, but I had several years that I just could not bring myself to do it. I lost my parents within a year of each other and they were buried there in Section 2. It took me several years to finally be able to write their names in my notebook. I was glad that I started with the oldest sections first since they only had the recordings from the 1930’s and unless you went to the York Co. Historical Society/York Heritage Trust you would have to walk each row and read each stone to see if your ancestors were buried there. Luckily, those sections were the ones that hold most people’s interest. I finished sections 1 & 5 before I lost my parents, and I was glad I did. It has been rewarding to get phone calls from other genealogists looking for their ancestors, and knowing that I can help them with that.
During my Dillsburg Cemetery recording process, I received a phone call from a supervisor of Fairview Township, York County. He explained that he had two tombstones sitting in the township storage room for over 20 years. They were confiscated for evidence in a theft and never returned to the cemetery. Not knowing where they belonged, township employees just moved those stones around each year like chess pieces when they tried to clean out the storage/evidence room. Deciding he really had to do something about this, he searched the internet and found my list on PAGENWEB. From there, he tried to locate someone at the Dillsburg Cemetery Association to help him get the stones back where they belonged, who told him to contact Cocklin’s Funeral Home, who in turn told him to contact me. We had a wonderful phone conversation and a week later, we met to put the stones back where they belonged. Now, thanks to my son-in-law who is the current gravedigger, the stones cannot be removed unless someone breaks them. The Mitchells now rest in peace knowing their descendants can find their burial location with ease once again.
As a semi-seasoned genealogist, I have found that I love to share what I have found with others. Whether it is family information, how-to’s for researching, or time helping others with their family tree quest. I can tell you that, at times, your important family search endeavor will lead you down paths that you would never have thought to go. You will meet some of the nicest people while doing the research. You will discover that some family members become your friends, and some friends become your family.
Below, you will find a few ideas for researching your lineage. If you have any suggestions, please share them with us. We would like to make a page of suggestions and how-to’s for researching.
1. When searching on-line and through numerous trees, import the new information into a separate family tree file to use for clues as to where to go from here. DO NOT take their information as gospel. DO NOT import to the family file that contains all your verified information.
2. Only work on one surname at a time. If you don’t you may confuse yourself and keep researching the same information over and over again, wasting your time.
3. Always, always, always document your sources of information, whether living relatives, other family trees, historical books, wills, marriage, birth, and death certificates, church records, tax records, census records, or other records. Document whom you received it from, where you located it, and when you received it. Make a copy for your records if possible.
4. Use a filing system that works for you for easy reference, whether it is putting it in a notebook with sheet protectors, or in a filing cabinet.
5. Always use acid-free paper and supplies. Make copies of information if you know it was before acid-free paper.
6. Always identify people in photos. It is usually better to use acid-free labels to put your information on, and then stick to the back of the photo, or make sure you use a pen that will not bleed through the picture. NEVER write names on the front of the photo. Past generations had a habit of that if they actually bothered identified the people. This information bleeds over time or rubs off depending upon the quality of the pen and the original photo. You could always put your pictures in photo albums that have labels to write on beside or under them, then you don’t destroy the pictures for future generations.
7. Don’t rely solely on your computer for storage. Back up your computer data frequently, make a spare copy of all your data on CD’s even though you have an external hard drive. Make sure you always have a paper copy that reflects your on-line information.
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