Saturday, June 24, 2017

At the heart of Chariton's cemetery

July 5, among other things, will be the 87th anniversary of the "Baby Heart" located on a gentle slope just south of the Chariton Cemetery shelter house --- the subject of frequent questions for those of us who volunteer to greet visitors there over the Memorial Day weekend.

On that date in 1930, little Carl Theodore Belkey, age 4, who had died at home in Chariton on July 3, was buried here, the first of approximately 200 youngsters laid to rest in the years that have followed in a section of the cemetery set aside specifically for them.

Carl's parents were Carl M. Belkey, a coal miner, and his wife, Fern, both of whom were buried years later elsewhere in the cemetery. At the time, however, they didn't own a cemetery lot and had little money, so this brand new cemetery feature must have been welcomed by them. For a fee of $20, the cemetery provided a burial spot, a tombstone and the assurance of perpetual care.

By 1954, sufficient burials had been made to complete the outline of the heart and burials began in concentric circles inside the heart and in rows to the east. The most recent burial in this section occurred during 2014.


The Baby Heart was among the many ideas of Ray F. Wyrick, Des Moines-based landscape architect and cemetery designer, who worked with the Chariton Cemetery Board for more than 40 years to improve and beautify the cemetery.

It was part of an overall design developed by Wyrick after 1924, when the city of Chariton purchased the cemetery from Gertrude Stanton, widow of Dr. John H. Stanton, for $10,000. Although Dr. Stanton's father, Dr. John E. Stanton, had taken great pride in the cemetery and maintained it meticulously, it had fallen into a state of considerable disarray during the years following his 1908 death, the principal reason why the city forced the purchase.

Among other issues, the Stantons had not set aside an endowment fund to ensure perpetual maintenance, so the city's newly acquired cemetery was broke --- one reason why it took 10 years to establish the park-like setting we appreciate today.

By 1930, the baby heart had been platted and was ready for use,  as reported as part of a longer story published in The Chariton Leader of May 13, 1930.

"One of the recent plans adopted for the Chariton cemetery is the laying out of a plot on which will be buried babies only. This plot is laid out in heart-shape and has room for one hundred graves around the outside edge. Inside the grave area will be a park way and an entrance to the heart-shaped space will be at the lower point of the heart. There two stone markers will be placed. As each grave is opened a uniform marker will head the grave. At the upper part of the heart will be a monument, a mother holding a babe in arms, in the center and on each corner of the base a child. Many times a child is laid to rest in the cemetery where the parents have no lot. This plot of ground will accommodate these in that circumstance and at a moderate cost of perhaps no more than twenty dollars. When the plot is completed it will be surrounded with a baby rambler hedge and will be one of the beauty spots in the cemetery."

In reality, there was not room around the perimeter of the heart for 100 graves --- about 60 instead --- and not all of these plans were carried forward. The current monument at the center of the heart is a considerably later addition, although the angel may have been brought  from a previous version.

This aerial shot, courtesy of Google Map, shows the outline of the heart clearly --- as well as other graves in the section.


One grave in the heart is out of sequence with the others. It belongs to an infant son of David and Mary Wormley, who died on Oct. 8, 1881. The Wormleys arrived in Chariton during 1875 to take over hotel and food service operations at the new C.B.&Q. Depot Hotel. Eventually, they moved on to the Pacific Northwest, leaving their child alone on a large lot in the cemetery.

During 1933, arrangements were made with undertaker Sam Beardsley to relocate the infant's grave to the new baby heart, a task accomplished on Aug. 29, and the Wormley lot was sold.


The children buried here are by no means forgotten. This is perhaps the most frequently visited section of the cemetery as Memorial Day approaches. And one extended family drives in every year from elsewhere to ensure that each child not remembered by someone else has a flower.

The cemetery itself, established during 1864 by a privately held corporation and owned by the city since 1924, is recognized as the Chariton Cemetery Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

No comments: