On a crisp fall night, the graveyard gate stands ajar. Creeping fingers clutch the iron bars and a gust of wind stirs up a strange rattling. The clouds part and moonlight illuminates a crooked shape looming over the gravestones. The gate creaks further open with a wail — the graveyard is stirring.
The next morning, the sun shines down on a magnificent remnant prairie among the gravestones. A grand oak tree spreads its limbs over them protectively. Tall grasses tangle playfully with the cemetery gate, and birds flit between the weathered stones with soft trills. Someone has closed the gate.
- words by CJ Younger, illustration by Kayleen Mercer
As Halloween approaches, old cemeteries become haunts for fictional zombies, vampires and werewolves. They may be frightful by night, but during the day the remnant prairies, oak savannas and other native habitats found around the gravestones serve as living history.
Rochester Cemetery (Cedar County) and Fairmount Cemetery (Scott County) were established by European settlers in the early 1800s and portions have remained unplowed and largely untouched since then, providing a glimpse into Iowa’s prairie and pioneer past.
Uncommon plant species such as New Jersey tea, which was almost eradicated due to the harm their roots did to plow blades, can be found thriving in many of these cemeteries. Deloit Cemetery (Crawford County) is home to a huge pre-settlement bur oak, a rare site in modern Iowa.
“Those aren’t weeds,” said Glenn Pollock, who leads tours to some of these cemeteries as part of the annual Loess Hills Prairie Seminar. “They’re an important part of Iowa’s history, and Iowa’s future, too.”
If you’re looking for a unique outdoor activity this October, grab a native plant guide and explore one of these Iowa haunts. Visit www.iowaprairienetwork.org/find-a-prairie to find a remnant prairie cemetery near you.