The North Bend Eagle

 

Killian Czech National Cemetery, Morse Bluff, Nebr.

Killian holds generations of Czech heritage

by Nathan Arneal
Published 8/12/15

It just got easier to find your way around Killian Cemetery, and you don’t even have to speak Czech.

Though it would certainly help.

The Czech National Cemetery, three miles west of Morse Bluff in the heart of Bohemia Township, is more commonly known as Killian Cemetery after the Killian family who owned the land around it.

Above the main cemetery entrance, the gate reads Cesko Slovansky´ Hrˇbitov, or Czech Slavic Cemetery. Many of the tombstones are inscribed in Czech, with plenty of names featuring unusual combinations of consonants. One of the names is Soukup, which adorns 14 gravestones in Killian.

Last year Don Soukup, a Morse Bluff native now living in Henderson, Nevada, was back visiting the cemetery. His parents, grandparents, a brother and many aunts and uncles are buried there. Visiting their grave sites wasn’t as easy as you would think.

“I go there and try to find people I know and pay my respects when I’m around, and I couldn’t find them,” Soukup said. “Unless you know exactly where somebody is buried, you can spend a whole day out there and not find them.”

Killian directoryDon and Diane Soukup pose with the cemetery directory they donated. It was up in time for Memorial Day 2015.

Soukup knew where to take his complaint. His brother Bob Soukup of North Bend is on the Killian Cemetery Board.

“I mentioned it to my brother,” Don Soukup said, “and said you guys should do a diagram of where people are buried. He said, ‘You know, I could talk to you about that.’”

Bob convinced Don to pay for half of a directory sign if the board could raise the other half. By the end of 2014, Don said he would go ahead and pay for it all.

The sign, which lists everyone buried in the cemetery and gives a plot number that corresponds with a map of the grave yard, was in place by Memorial Day this spring. When he visited for Old Settlers this summer, Don Soukup got to see it for the first time.

“I went out to take a look at it but the doggone mosquitoes nearly ate me alive,” he said, “so I didn’t look at it very long.”

The new directory is just the latest addition to the cemetery that dates back to the area’s earliest Czech settlers in the late 1800’s. Many of the first burials are now unmarked, perhaps originally noted by wooden markers.

On May 10, 1875, the Bohemian Graveyard Co. bought the ground from the Union Pacific Railroad for $112. In 1910 the Czech-Slavic Cemetery Association was formed and bought the graveyard for $25. At that time a list of rules and bylaws was drawn up and published, written completely in Czech, of course.

Bob Soukup has one of the original 1910 booklets. A cousin who still lives in the Czech Republic, Dan Janik, translated the booklet during a visit a couple of years ago.

The Czech-Slavic Cemetery Association was a club. Application to become members of the club must be approved by two-thirds of the board. If approved, the new member paid $25, which entitled the member to a 20-by-20 foot plot for his use, space for eight burials if they didn’t take up too much room with a fancy headstone. An annual fee was required as well, and you wanted to be sure to not fall behind on your payments.

As it says in the Association bylaws: “Every member who owns a plot and has not paid in 30 days would be suspended, and after six months, eliminated. The Board has the right to expel the dead of these and bury another corpse in that plot and the plot would be returned to the Board.”

Once the owners of the plots became residents of the plots, membership in the Cemetery Association was inherited by the next of kin. Members were in charge of maintaining and mowing their own plot within the graveyard.

Bob Soukup began mowing the cemetery in the 1960s. By then only about 30 percent of the plots were being maintained and mowed by the owners. As a result, the Czech-Slavic Cemetery Association reorganized in 1965.

At that time the cemetery was cleaned up. Trees surrounding many family plots were removed. Each plot had marble or cement markers outline it. The markers were removed, making mowing easier.

The byelaws were changed as well. Instead of collecting annual dues – and facing the possibility of having your loved one’s body thrown out because of a late payment – a one-time perpetual care fee was charged.

Cemetery board president Keith Racek said the perpetual care fund was just what the association needed.

“That’s when the cemetery got on its feet, when they collected all that perpetual care and ended up with some high interest,” Racek said. “They could improve themselves with mowers and pay good wages to kids.”

Not everyone liked the new rules, though. Milton Eckstein owned two lots, a total of 16 grave sites. Perpetual care was $30 per site, which would have cost him a total of $480. Instead, he continued to pay the $1 per grave site annual fee until his death in 2005.

“When he died, we just wrote it off the books,” Bob Soukup said. “We told him, no, we don’t need your money, but he was there every year. He wanted to know when the meeting was. I had to send him a card. He didn’t have a phone.”

Soukup is currently the treasurer for the cemetery board. Joining him and Racek on the board are secretary Glenn Chvatal, Rollie Otte, Gene Simaenk and Jerry Soukup. Andy Gibney serves as caretaker.

Many of the board members have a long relationship with Killian Cemetery, and several have found themselves digging graves at one point or another. That was no easy task in the days before backhoes, though some digs were easier than others.

Years ago Bob Soukup and Racek were called upon to dig a grave in January when the temperature was well below zero. The ground was frozen two feet deep.

“We went up there with picks and it took us half a day to get through the frost,” Soukup said. “Half a day and a gallon of wine. In the afternoon we went back and finished it with another gallon of wine. Two days later they come with the body, put it on the stand, cranked it down. It didn’t fit.”

In the two days between the digging and the burial, the newly exposed ground froze and expanded, causing the casket to become wedged halfway down. Unfortunately, the workers removed the straps when it got stuck, so it could not be lifted out.

“What are we going to do?” Soukup said “We can’t get it up, can’t get it down, so we got on top and jumped on it.”

The casket was partially jarred loose, and was now tilted. Finally, they got it close to the bottom of the six-foot hole.

“I don’t think it went all the way down,” Soukup said, “but we covered it up and that was the last hole I ever dug. I said, I don’t need no part of this.”

Digging a grave was good money. In a time when typical pay was $2 an hour, a morning of grave digging paid $50. For this particular job, Soukup and Racek charged hazard pay.

“We charged them $75 and they didn’t complain,” Soukup said.

When a grave is needed, Rollie Otte is charge of marking out the grave sites using a metal detector to find steel pins that mark the each plot. Killian is unique in that the graves face the south, toward the entrance. Graves traditionally face the east. In fact, there are three plots in Killian where the families insisted on facing the east, so those graves sit at 90 degrees to their neighbors.

When Otte joined the board in 2001, he improved the record keeping to preserve the institutional memory held by some of the previous board members.

“Francis Chvatal was on the board forever,” Otte said. “He had that cemetery memorized. He knew where everybody was, who married what, who was this relation. I couldn’t believe this guy. I said, ‘We got to have a book.’”

Those records helped create the roll call listed on the directory board installed in May. Though the Czech National Cemetery is open to people of all national heritages, the clientèle is still primarily Czech, mirroring the people who live in the hills of the Bohemian Alps and along the southern bank of the Platte River.

A stroll around Killian will reveal 36 Hineses, 26 Raceks, 17 Chernys, and plenty of Shavliks, Tomaseks, Soukups, Vopalenskys and Wallas with room for more. The cemetery averages about three burials a year.

Don Soukup plans to visit the burial ground of his ancestors in October and make good use of the directory he paid for.

“I want to see where everybody’s buried,” he said.

As for the sign itself, he is happy with his investment.

“I think it looks really nice,” Don Soukup said. “I’m happy with the work, and it’s a heck of a lot better than it was when you had walk around and try and figure out where people were.”

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