By Sydney Schwichtenberg

With a camera in his hands and his wife close behind, Glenn Shroads raises his lens up to a gravesite in Woods County, Oklahoma. Although the cemetery is still spotted with silk flowers and the grass remains neatly cut, Shroads records the gravesite with a quick click of the camera’s shutter-button. 

After he photographs a thousand gravesites, Shroads and his wife load back into their car and drive three hours to get home. They plan to return for another 25 days, or at least until they record all of the county’s undocumented grave markers. 

“From sun up to sun down,” Shroads said. “We have to drive 150 miles to get to a cemetery and 150 miles to get home.” 

Shroads, 77, and a retired airman, spends his retirement volunteering for Oklahoma Cemeteries website, a non-profit organization dedicated to documenting Oklahoma’s graveyards. A year ago, he documented all gravesites in Woods County. Now, he spends four hours a day recording obituaries.

The volunteers with Oklahoma Cemeteries are connected with local cemeteries and newspapers in order to keep their archives continuously updated with new burials and obituaries, Shroads said. 

“We are not reporting the news,” Shroads said. “We are reporting a burial after the burial.” 

Shroads said there are only two options for cemeteries and both are inevitable. 

“Stop and think for a moment, what is the final destination for every single cemetery in the world?” Shroads said. “One of two things… graves are being dug up and the bodies, the remains, are being thrown in the garbage to be replaced by new graves because there is no more land. The second thing that happens… there is no longer a cemetery because they’ve been overrun by the clock.”

Matt Files, Oklahoma Cemeteries coordinator for Cleveland County, believes that Norman cemeteries face the same disrepair Shroads warns about . 

Files said the Oklahoma City restaurant Johnnie’s Grill was once home to one of central Oklahoma’s pauper’s cemeteries, a gravesite for those that couldn’t afford a traditional burial, and a popular resting place for the people of Norman. 

“Reports state that the plots were moved to what is today, Norman IOOF Cemetery, but not all were moved,” Files said. “Families couldn’t afford to have their loved ones removed so they left them behind.” 

Files said some people buried where Johnnie’s Grill stands were unknown without grave markers, with the restaurant as their final resting place. Files said in the parking lot of Johnnie’s Grill, a plaque honoring those left behind stands. 

Files believes that Oklahoma gravesites are documented to help others gain accessible information on those who have passed. 

“Our mission… is to provide family researchers and historians of all levels access to free information on cemeteries and those who are buried there,” Files said in an email. 

Files said 98% of Oklahoma Cemeteries operates solely off of volunteer work from fellow Oklahomans or those who have ties with the state. 

“Our structure is set up so that anyone can assist us,” Files said. “No set hours required, no special skills, small groups or an individual are more than welcome to join us. We don’t conduct meetings or anything but are always in contact with other team members and our leadership chain.”

For volunteers like Shroads and Files, who document thousands of grave markers, they are running against the clock to record cemeteries before they are abandoned. Shroads said cemeteries say they have perpetual care of the burial ground but that simply isn’t true. 

“Perpetual care runs out when the money runs out,” Shroads said. “What’s the source of income for a cemetery? The source of income is a burial and not many people are being buried anymore.”  

With the volunteer work of Oklahoma Cemeteries, there are over one million grave markers recorded online.

“We are making an electronic history because that will never be erased,” Shroads said. 

Jim Woodruff, an Oklahoma Cemeteries volunteer for central Oklahoma, recorded 109,000 grave markers in the area before he left the state for Florida. Over 30,000 of those were collected from Cleveland County. 

Woodruff said his favorite cemetery is Rock Creek Road Cemetery, established in 1933 and the old burial place for the Central State Hospital. Woodruff discovered the grave markers were made out of concrete blocks and nearly all of the dates were unreadable.  In his observation on Oklahoma Cemeteries website, Woodruff asked for ancestors of those buried in the cemetery to replace the markers. 

“Since then, someone has replaced the old concrete blocks and someone has photographed the new stones,” Woodruff said in an email.  

A traditional burial is now being traded for a cheaper decision: cremation. It’s simple economics Shroads said.

“Would you take a $10,000 bill and take it out here to [the] cemetery and bury it in the ground?” Shroads said. “What sense does that make? So you take $1500 and put it in an urn and put it in a 2-foot hole in the ground.”

As time goes on and people continue to choose the cheaper route, Shroads said, cemetery funds will run out and gravesites will be abandoned. 

According to the General Counsel Opinion 2000-6 by Cherokee Nation, an abandoned cemetery is defined as an area “obviously a cemetery,” where no person has been buried at in the last 25 years. 

Despite the changing economics in burials, Shroads said he believes it’s paramount to remember the people of the past by conserving history through electronic files. 

“The bottom line is really rather simple,” Shroads said. “When you forget history, you will not remember the future. Period.” 

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