PLYMOUTH — James Ousnamer retired from serving as the City of Plymouth Cemetery Superintendent after almost 48 years of service. James followed his father’s footsteps, Virgil Ousnamer, whose exact length of service is not known.
James was born on January 3,1948. James served in the United States Air Force for four years. When his father needed his help, James left the Air Force and started working with him at the cemetery in 1971.
“I started in September. By the latter part of October I made him mad. I told him I wanted to join the Air Force reserves at Grissom. He was mad.” Ousnamer chuckled shaking his head.
By 1974, Virgil had passed away and the torch for the keeping of the graves was passed to James.
Charles Glaub was the Mayor of the City of Plymouth at that time and it was he who created the official full time position of ‘Sexton’ or ‘Superintendent’ for James in 1974. Ousnamer laughed, “The old name was Grave Digger.”
James had worked as a city employee for several years before that. It is believed that he holds the record for serving the longest term as a city of Plymouth employee for a total of 47 (almost 48 years).
Oak Hill Cemetery
Oak Hill Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Marshall County. Ousnamer served through 6 additions to Oakhill Cemetery. There are only two other cemeteries in Plymouth, the Catholic Cemetery and the one by the hospital. Neither of those cemeteries fell under Ousnamer’s responsibilities.
Oak Hill Cemetery once had a pond with goldfish and bird sanctuaries. The pond had to be filled in due to liability restrictions, but some of the bird baths and benches still remain. The chapel is located on 1300 Chester St.
Responsibilities of the Sexton
The superintendent and other cemetery staff work closely with funeral directors to see that the burial is handled professionally and with compassion. Other responsibilities included the care and the keeping of grounds, open and close the graves, and poured foundations of concrete for the monuments.
Ousnamer had no regular schedule, “I worked eight days a week. Death knows no holiday.” Though the city discouraged burials on Saturday or Sunday, they refused burials on holidays.
Ousnamer said that many don’t understand the job of the grave digger and they always tried to be respectful of family who lingered at the grave site. “It was very solemn.” Some grave diggers start filling in the grave in front of family, which Ousnamer said is ultimately up to the grave digger. He tried to be mindful of the laborers need to get their job complete, while at the same time being mindful of the family’s need to share memories or linger a few moments longer.
47 years of service did not jade Ousnamer’s heart in any way, “I never got callous over it. I had to control my emotions. Especially when burying a child or a friend.”
Ousnamer said, “You have to be compassionate and understanding. The gentleman who took over has been tough by me for 13 years. He has it. He was born with it.” Michael Collins was sworn in to replace Ousnamer. “You have got to have compassion for people. They have just lost a loved one. Especially when they didn’t pre-arrange anything or have anything done.”
“It’s getting more so that people are preparing better now.” Ousnamer said.
The Grave Digger
Ousnamer reflected, “A grave is a grave, but people have changed.” More people are choosing cremation over traditional burial methods. “When I started we opened graves by hand.”
Beverly Towle, James’ sister and Virgil’s daughter reminisced, “My sons marveled at how perfect the graves that Grandpa dug were.”
Ousnamer added that clay made it difficult to dig graves, “There were times we would have to wet the ground the night before with a special sprinkler.”
Towle added, “In the winter they had to use coal to thaw the ground.” Ousnamer explained, “We used wood and coal in a special burner on top of the ground. That would drive the frost out of it. It would take about 12 or 14 inches of frost out of the ground over night as long as the coal kept burning. It was hard work.” He chuckled.
Ousnamer was unable to estimate a number for total graves he dug. He does know where every grave is located. Towle reported that their father Virgil was the same.
The city got their first backhoe to dig graves in 1972. “Your surrounding cemeteries get people to come in with excavating equipment.”
Ousnamer challenged the old cliche´ that a grave had to be 6 feet deep. “That’s not true. In Plymouth we are allowed 40 inches in width by 8 feet in depth. The state of Indiana requires 2 feet of earth over the outer receptacle. That’s your concrete or metal vault. That includes cremains.” Cremains are a person’s cremated remains.
A few years ago Ousnamer had to deal with vandalism within the cemetery. 115 monuments were tipped over. Towle said, “People steal flowers and hanging baskets.”
Ousnamer added, “They would dig up complete flower beds that had just been planted the night before.” The city of Plymouth is not responsible for vandalism or theft. Towle added, “The police do patrol it.”
When asked if there were any tales of hauntings in the cemetery Ousnamer and Towle chuckled and shook their heads no. Jennie Mikesell, James’ daughter, shared with a smile, “Mike and Paul used to tell Jerry about the one that is by the old mausoleum. The lawnmowers always died right there and they swore it was haunted.”
Rules and Regulations
Two weeks before Memorial Day the Veteran of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion replaces the United States Flags at the grave of every veteran. Though Memorial Day originated to honor veterans, many today visit the grave site of loved ones who have passed away regardless of military service.
The Marshall County Museum leads Cemetery Walks annually.
A full list of rules and regulations for Oak Hill Cemetery can be found online at http://www.plymouthin.com/index.php/departments/cemetery/.