Buried without name; On Memorial Day, there are also “the Unknowns”

Published 7:38 am Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Most of us are defined by years – the time in which we were born, and when we died.

And, or most of us, our tombstones, death records or funeral documents will speak of our beginning and end points. Many, this Memorial Day, will honor those who went before with flowers, flags, and a knowledge of ancestry.

But there are those who have no years – they don’t even have names, at least not in death.

Email newsletter signup

At Oakwood Cemetery in Austin, there are over 230 of who manager Gregg McConnell simply refers to as “the Unknowns” – deceased who were unnamed and buried without fanfare or headstones.

What little is known of their lives is contained in a stack of what looks like oversized recipe cards in the cemetery office at Oakwood.

Oakwood Cemetery superintendent and secretary Gregg McConnell, displays one of the “Unknowns” card. There are 237 unknowns buried at Oakwood; most are buried in the southern part of the cemetery.
Deb Nicklay/deb.nicklay@austindailyherald.com

McConnell is the first to say he doesn’t know much about those who lay mostly in plots in the southern part – also the oldest – of the cemetery. The plots are intermittent, often between other tombstones.

While the burials are noted, “all we have is ‘unidentified man,’ on the cards,” if there is anything, he said. All, however, carry section and plot numbers.

In fact, the vast majority don’t even carry gender – all that is recorded in the plot and plot owner. The owner, we assume, allowed burial of the unknown in additional plots.

There are a few cards with scanty details, including gender and the undertaker. In some cases, there are a few explanatory notes.

“Found in box car by Hormel yards,” is a simple notation for one man found dead in the 1920s.

Another noted a suicide. Still another, in 1911, said “county charge.” One had the only designation, “premature birth.”

One of the saddest might be the one that said death was attributed to “exhaustion from lack of food” – or rather, the person starved to death. That was in 1928.

McConnell wondered if a good many were not hobos who rode the rails.

“Just a guess,” he said.

A close-up of one of the cards for an unknown; according to the record, the person died in 1897. Deb Nicklay/deb.nicklay@austindailyherald.com

The unnamed are certainly not unique to Oakwood; most cemeteries usually have some unknowns. In a search of the internet, references are made to a number of reasons for unnamed burials, from criminals sentenced to death to the victims of epidemics, who had to be buried quickly for fear of the spread of disease.

These are not to be confused with those who were buried in Potter’s Fields – a popular name given to an area in cemeteries in which the poor are buried. Although they may not be marked with a tombstone, there are usually records about the person being interred.

But of the 13,600 plots that are used in the Oakwood Cemetery, some remain – and will always remain – anonymous.

“Found in the river by Campbell’s Mills on August 23, 1897,” said one more card.

Whoever it was, however he or she died, only one other thing was known: Death then was handled quickly for the unnamed. The unfortunate who was found was buried the very same day.