Stones’ age causing dilemma at Tinley cemetery
By Mike Nolan email@example.com July 26, 2013 8:28PM
Brad Bettenhausen, a trustee with the Orland-Tinley Park Memorial Cemetery Association, talks about damaged grave markers at the Tinley Park Memorial Cemetery. Many of the stones are unidentifiable, and the association lacks the funds to repair or restore the stones. | Mike Nolan~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 29, 2013 6:10AM
In a Tinley Park cemetery where many of his family members are buried, some of the village’s early history is losing a battle against time and the elements, and Brad Bettenhausen feels as though he’s helpless to stop it.
Some of the earliest families to put down roots in the community, first called Bremen, are buried in Tinley Park Memorial Cemetery, at the southwest corner of 171st Street and 84th Avenue. Some of the gravestones date to the mid-19th century, and they’re slowly crumbling and toppling over.
Worn and weathered to the point where names and other information are mostly obliterated, the marble slabs are carefully stacked or propped against trees, some of which innocently contributed to the damage when their roots thickened over the decades and dislodged stones.
“Marble was easy to carve, but it doesn’t hold up well,” Bettenhausen said.
Some of the older markers have held up a bit better than others.
“Where the stone was mined, how it was carved and even the skills of the carver” factor into the longevity, he said.
Tinley Park Memorial — as well as a small cemetery in Orland Park, at the northwest corner of Harlem Avenue and Wheeler Drive — are maintained by the Orland-Tinley Park Methodist Cemetery Association, which was formed in 1943.
The Orland site doesn’t have a formal name, although it’s been referred to as the German Methodist Cemetery, Bettenhausen said, but no burials have been made there in almost a century.
Plots still are being sold in the 21/2-acre Tinley cemetery, and while it’s the money from those sales that pays for maintenance of the property, it’s barely enough, Bettenhausen said.
The money is put in safe, conservative investment vehicles such as money market accounts. However, as interest rates have fallen, the return has been negligible, forcing the association to tap the principal to cover expenses, he said.
Bettenhausen said he’d like to replace the fence surrounding the cemetery and add another gravel road to improve access to the graves, “but the funds just aren’t there,” he said.
A lack of money means the association can’t even consider trying to repair or restore the crumbling gravestones, and he’s at a loss for ideas of how to best preserve the bits and pieces.
Another privately owned cemetery in the area had a similar problem, and handled it by simply piling the broken markers into a burial vault and burying it in the ground, with no stone to mark its location, Bettenhausen said.
“I could do that here, and the place would look beautiful, but I would have lost a big piece of history,” he said.
The oldest graves are in the easternmost portion of the cemetery, and records for those burials are spotty, at best.
“I have done quite a bit of work trying to do documentation” of the burials, Bettenhausen said.
Some of the tried-and-true methods for “reading” old gravestones — rubbing charcoal over a piece of paper laid over the marker — have had limited success.
The cemetery was established in 1858 and a Methodist church was built there — just to the south of where a Walgreens now stands — shortly afterward, Bettenhausen said. The church was destroyed by a fire in June 1938 after lightning hit it, and it’s believed that some of the records of early burials went up in flames.
Bettenhausen’s grandfather, Henry, was one of the association’s early trustees and had a “black satchel” containing some cemetery records that was passed down to Bettenhausen’s father, Robert, who has since handed it over to Brad.
Brad, 55, and his 81-year-old father are now the association’s only trustees, although Brad Bettenhausen said he’s trying to recruit others. Bettenhausen is Tinley Park’s treasurer and president of the village’s historical society.
Despite the financial constraints, Bettenhausen said he’s determined to try to hang on to the cemetery’s early history.
“Just because I can’t read them (gravestones) now doesn’t mean some technology won’t come along down the road that can,” he said. “There might potentially be some technology today that could raise up (the eroded carvings on the stones) and make visible to the naked eye what is now not visible.”