February 22, 2024

AMS Cemetery Club

In a world where the past often feels distant, a group of students at Ames Middle School defies the norm by embracing history in an unexpected way ᅳ a cemetery club. 

As students delve into the solemn yet captivating world of graveyard preservation, these young enthusiasts are learning to honor the past and taking practical steps to ensure that the legacy of those laid to rest remains accessible and respected for generations to come.

“This club started around 2016-2017. At the time, we had a 30-minute class called a “tutorial” where teachers could teach about subjects that interested them. Students would sign up for the classes that interested them,” said Di Sheldon, the club’s faculty sponsor and a seventh-grade language arts teacher. “It was near Halloween, and I did a class on gravestone symbolism. We watched a video of people cleaning graves to get at the carvings, and I had a student ask why we couldn’t do that. I didn’t have a good answer, so I found Dennis Allen, a conservator of a couple of cemeteries around Des Moines, and he came up and trained students who were interested in cleaning.”

Dee Hehr, Sheldon’s sister, helps her run the cemetery club. They’ve presented cemetery symbolism to a women’s club and one just on cemeteries and cleaning to a 4-H club.  

The club revolves around field trips held over both semesters. A quartet of around a dozen students participate in the field trips.

“It’s mostly a virtual club–we don’t have physical meetings,” Sheldon said. “We have 2-4 field trips each fall and spring to go to a cemetery and clean the stones.”

The Cemetery Club occasionally goes beyond Ames, even beyond Story County, to clean stones.

“We’ve worked in Linwood Park Cemetery in Boone, Ontario Cemetery in Ames, Lowman Cemetery near Runnells, Avon Cemetery in Avon (southeast of Des Moines), and we’re currently helping to take care of Fjeldberg Cemetery in Huxley,” Sheldon shares. “We make sure we have permission to go to each of the cemeteries and clean them.”

There is a learning aspect to the cemetery club, too, as Sheldon explains:  “I think it teaches them that it’s important to respect and preserve the past. I also hope it teaches them that cemeteries aren’t ghoulish or something to be spooked by, that they are beautiful and peaceful places that deserve our protection.”

In addition to cemeteries being both “beautiful and peaceful”, students often find the minutia relaxing in a cemetery setting.

“Students find the act of cleaning the stones very peaceful, almost zen-like,” Sheldon said. “We use gentle elbow grease and patience to clean the stones, and use “do no harm” methods. What we do is purely voluntary–if people want to pay us, we direct them to programs like Wreaths Across America, which makes sure there is a wreath on every veteran’s grave in December. Ames Cemetery Club has a donation spot on their website. For us, this is a labor of love. Cemeteries and graveyards are really cool.”

Finally, for students who might not yet be convinced the cemetery club is one for them, Sheldon shares this elevator pitch:

“Who’s going to take care of your grave when you die? It can be a depressing topic, but it doesn’t have to be. Cemeteries used to be popular picnic places, where the dead were celebrated. If you think cemeteries should be respected, protected, and preserved; if you think those who have gone before us should be honored or remembered, then this is the club for you.”