ELK TWP. - Becoming caretaker of the cemeteries for the Zion United Church of Christ wasn't something Vernon Thomas planned; it just sort of happened.
"That's the way it is because there's really nobody else (affiliated with the church) out here in this area," said Thomas, 80, of Elk Township in Noble County.
Although two of Thomas' uncles and a great-grandfather are among the 275 to 300 people laid to rest in the cemetery next to the shuttered church on Old Church Road off Ohio 565, he became a member around 1960 of what was then known as the Zion Evangelical and Reformed Church after he married his wife, Shirley. It wasn't long before Thomas was on the church council.
"When you've only got 10 or 12 members and you got a ... limit on how long you can be there, you kind of get forced into it," he said with a laugh.
People were buried in the hillside cemetery in the order they died, a German tradition, rather than being grouped by family, Thomas noted. A number of the markers are still in good condition, but many have faded with age, some have fallen and others are gone.
The last burial in that cemetery was in 1944, so by the time Thomas got involved, folks were being interred in a newer cemetery half a mile up the road. He and a neighbor used to dig the graves.
Zion Church Cemetery
Alternate name: Zion Evangelical Cemetery.
Location: Old Church Road, off Ohio 565, in Elk Township, Noble County.
Last burial: 1944.
Source: Times research.
"I was a gravedigger, preacher, pallbearer, everything, one grave," Thomas said, recalling the burial of a stillborn girl in 1978.
The church closed about eight years ago, and the original plan was to form a cemetery association to maintain the new and old sites.
"Well, we had one meeting and that's about as far as the association went," Thomas said.
Money collected over the years, along with donations and revenue from sales of plots at the newer cemetery, pay for maintenance, which costs about $1,500 a year, Thomas said.
"We haven't got a lot of money, but we've got enough to keep going for a few years yet," he said.
Thomas said he and his wife will continue to oversee the cemeteries as long as the fund lasts and they are able to do so. Eventually though, someone else will have to take over, probably the township trustees, who have a legal responsibility to maintain abandoned cemeteries.
The Thomases pay someone to mow the cemeteries two to three times a month, depending on weather. Thomas also picks up at the active cemetery after storms and tries to set up markers that have fallen in the older cemetery.
There are about 60 markers in the new cemetery, many of them representing the final resting place of two or more family members. The last burial was more than a year ago, but additional plots have been sold and there is space for more.
"You give me $100, and I'll give you a deed for a lot," he said.
Lowell resident Kelton Fliehman Jr., 83, attended the church as a child and has relatives buried in the cemetery. But he found out there were even more than he thought after reading "Zion Church Cemetery," a book of photos and information on the cemetery compiled last year by Marietta resident Patricia Kehl.
"I found several people in there I wasn't aware of, that would have been ancestors or relatives of ancestors," he said.
One of those was a great-aunt who died as a child. Others shared the surname of Pitzer with one of Fliehman's great-grandfathers who is buried there, but he believes those individuals are distant relations at best.
"They came to this country about 10 years before he did," Fliehman said.