Sunday, October 25, 2015

"Bury My Leg at...Hazelwood Cemetery"

Civil War buffs will know that General Stonewall Jackson was buried without his left arm, because, when surgeons amputated the arm after Jackson was wounded at the 1863 battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson's chaplain rescued the arm from the heap of amputated limbs and gave the arm a "Christian burial."  Amputation, however, did not save Jackson; he died soon after the operation, and his body was shipped to Lexington, VA, where it was buried—without the arm (commemorated by its own gravestone) that had been left behind at Ellwood Manor cemetery.
Photo by Julie H. (May 2015) (
A person might be tempted to relegate this story to the quaint, fascinating, but uninformed past. In fact, however, the issue of buried limbs continues to make an appearance in the press. For example, in 2010 the Daily Mail told the story of two men who had had legs amputated in a Leicester hospital, which refused to hand over the limbs to the amputees, despite their announced request to have them.  Bob Brownlow, one of the complainants featured in the Daily Mail story, told a reporter, "That leg had been mine for more than fifty years, and I don't understand why I couldn't keep it.  It's part of me and...I wanted to be buried with it." Similarly, in August, 2014 a Chicago-area man filed suit against a Skokie hospital "for cremating his amputated leg instead of saving it for burial as he had requested." According to the news report, Jewish tradition requires that "amputated limbs... should be buried with or near a person in preparation for the resurrection of the dead mentioned in Jewish scriptures." Islam, too, prescribes burial for amputated limbs "in respect for the human being."

I am not aware of any special discussion of this problem within Christian theology, which also makes space for bodily resurrection but emphasizes the immaterial nature of the immortal soul. Nevertheless, the practice of burying amputated limbs evidently thrived in Christian Britain. For instance, Sarah Tarlow in her book, Ritual, Belief and the Dead in Early Modern Britain and Ireland, mentions the 1756 burial in Wales of the "left leg and part of the thigh" of Henry Hughes Cooper, fully commemorated by a stone marker (apparently Cooper later emigrated to America where he died and was buried without his amputated leg and thigh). Tarlow also found several nineteenth-century cases in which amputees had had coffins prepared specifically for their lost limbs, the first step toward formal burial.  This practice, Tarlow asserts, indicates that Britons thought that amputated limbs retained "some part of the individual self."

Photo by Julie Preston, 1993 (
What brought me to ponder these unusual circumstances was my recent work in Hazelwood Cemetery. In an effort to help update the inventory of persons buried there, I ran across an interesting fact: at least two burial plots in Hazelwood cemetery are occupied by amputated legs, although neither is remembered by a gravestone of its own.

What was evidently the first leg to be buried at Hazelwood belonged to Mary Ewoldt, who died at age 79 in Grinnell in late May, 1952.  Her parents, Frank Kelm and Julia Poleska Kelm, had both been born in Germany, so it was perhaps no surprise that Mary's choice for husband was also German-born, Herman Ewoldt.  The couple married in 1895 in Trinity Lutheran Church, Malcom (the record is preserved in German), but Mary later was a member of long standing at St. John's Lutheran, Grinnell.  She and her husband spent more than 50 years together farming in
Grinnell Herald-Register March 19, 1945
Washington Township, south of Grinnell, and had but one child, Hinrich, who died soon after his birth in August, 1907.  In the late 1940s the aging couple moved into town, taking up residence at 1706 4th Avenue where they could enjoy retirement. The newspaper report of their fiftieth-wedding anniversary described them both as being in good health, but Mary came to endure what her obituary vaguely described as a "lingering illness," perhaps the cause of the amputation of a limb, which  is buried in the same plot with her, her son Hinrich, and husband Herman (who died in 1953). According to cemetery records recently added to the local history archive at Drake Community Library, her leg was buried just north of the gravestone on December 29, 1949, about two-and-a-half years before Mary Ewoldt herself was buried, May 31, 1952.
Gravestone for Della and Elmer White, Hazelwood Cemetery
Elmer White contributed the second (and third?) leg to burial at Hazelwood. Born in Indiana in 1875, White only reached Grinnell in 1902, and soon thereafter married Della Cole. The 1910 census found White outside town, farming.  But by 1915 he and his wife had moved into town, with their three children taking up residence at 1215 Summer Street. In those days White worked first as a "yardman" and teamster for Grinnell College, then later as a church janitor. The official who registered White for the draft in 1918 described him as being of medium height, medium build with gray eyes and dark hair. The line on the form that asked "Has person lost arm, leg, hand, eye, or is he obviously physically disqualified?" was left blank, meaning that in 1918 White still had all his limbs. The 1940 census, however, found only Mrs. White at home in Grinnell, renting a room at 1225 Elm Street and working as a housekeeper at the college; that same census reported that her husband was institutionalized at Mt. Pleasant State Hospital where he had been residing since at least 1935. Later, whether in Grinnell or at Mt. Pleasant, White developed an illness (diabetes?), which, according to the recollections of one who knew him, finally required amputation of both legs. Hazelwood records indicate that burial of White's legs (at the east end of the gravestone) took place on April 6, 1955, meaning that amputation of the legs was probably intended to prolong White's life, as he died—legless—more than four years later. White's obituary described him as a member of Grinnell's Methodist church, but it was the pastor of First Baptist church, the Rev. C. E. Kingsley, who officiated at White's August 7, 1959 funeral; graveside services were entrusted to the Odd Fellows, one of several fraternal organizations to which White belonged. What services attended burial of Elmer White's legs remain unknown.
More than fifty years later, we have scant hope of learning why Mary Ewoldt and Elmer White had their legs buried at Hazelwood years before they themselves were interred there. Perhaps they acted out of religious conviction, hoping that, when bodily resurrection came, as they evidently believed it would, they would be recreated as they had been before amputation. Or perhaps, like Bob Brownlow in Leicester, they thought that their legs were, after all, theirs, and no one else had more claim to the severed appendages than they.

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