MARYVILLE, Mo. — Memorial Day is fast approaching, which means the grave markers of those who served their country in uniform will soon be decorated with wreaths, flowers and flags at cemeteries countywide.

And in a sprawling, mostly rural county like Nodaway, many of those burial sites are located in small, out-of-the-way graveyards tucked away on prairie hilltops or alongside gravel roads. Others stand surrounded by lonely, windblown pastures and fields.

The memory of those veterans, of course, as well as the remembered lives of other deceased members of area families, is held sacred by friends, relatives and descendants. But while the treasured past is in good hands, the future of many country cemeteries is anything but certain.

As the fifth-largest county in Missouri, geographically speaking, Nodaway is home to nearly 90 burial grounds, according to a list maintained by the recorder of deeds office. A few of them, like Oak Hill on the north edge of Maryville, are owned and maintained by municipalities. Others are operated by churches and funeral homes.

But the majority are small, privately owned cemeteries administered by nonprofit boards generally made up of folks who belong to old farm families, and who volunteer to take on the responsibility of overseeing investment accounts used to keep the grass mowed and the fences mended.

Often such graveyards are associated with a town or a church that doesn’t even exist anymore — tiny places marked on old county maps with names like Bedison, Gaynor, Dawson and Orrsburg.

Joyce Hennegin, who has been the secretary-treasurer of the Long Branch Cemetery near the former town of Gaynor in northeast Nodaway County since 1998, said the system worked fairly well until the 2008 recession toppled interest rates.

The financial crisis meant earnings on rural cemetery accounts, which state law formerly required to be set up using low-yield certificates of deposit, dropped significantly. All of a sudden, graveyard boards that had been operating on a more or less break-even basis for decades could no longer afford to mow the grass.

In an attempt to address the situation, state Rep. Allen Andrews, whose 1st District includes Nodaway County, led a successful effort last year to pass legislation that allowed cemetery trustees, under certain restrictions, to invest in higher-yield bonds, stocks and mutual funds.

The law has helped, Hennegin said, but not enough.

Working with a financial advisor from Edward Jones Investments, Hennegin said the Long Branch board was able to increase its annual return-on-investment from $250 a year to around $700.

“But our mowing costs are $2,000 a year,” she said, adding that trustees belonging to other Nodaway County cemetery panels have told her they face similar fiscal hurdles.

Hennegin said Long Branch trustees were able to make up the difference, at least through the near term, thanks to a couple of memorial donations from families with relatives buried at the Gaynor graveyard that totaled around $1,200. 

In addition, the board decided to get proactive by mounting a mail-based campaign that reached out to those with family buried at Long Branch and anyone else they could think of with ties to the tiny community. Hennegin said the effort exceeded expectations and brought in more than $3,000.

But that’s still not enough, since cemetery boards, by law, are barred from spending principal, meaning that only interest and other investment returns can be used to cover mowing and other expenses.

Hennegin estimates that, at a minimum, Long Branch needs to increase its invested assets to at least $10,000 in order for the cemetery to remain viable for the foreseeable future.


“It may come to the point where we all just have to take turns mowing it ourselves,” she said, adding that three of the five board members — all of whom are retirement age or older — are probably up to the task. 

It also is possible, Hennegin said, that other potential volunteers with family buried at Long Branch could be convinced to lend a hand maintaining the graveyard, which comprises about three-quarters of an acre.

Aside from memorial bequests, interest and dividends, the cemetery’s only other income derives from a freewill donation box set up on a rusting pole in the in the middle of the graveyard, and gravesite purchases, which cost $210 each — $10 for the land and $200 for “perpetual care.”

Hennegin estimates that families purchase two or three gravesites each year.

“We’re glad you’re writing something,” she said during the interview for this story. “People need to know that their little cemetery, wherever their loved ones are buried, needs help.”

Meanwhile on the legislative front, Andrews is working on a follow-up bill that would allow rural cemetery boards, provided they abide by at least some regulations, to dip into principal if investment returns prove insufficient.

“There would have to be some really good safeguards,” Andrews said, “but (cemetery boards) are still not finding the relief that they need. Their only income (besides return on capital) is selling plots and receiving donations.”

In talking with other lawmakers, Andrews said he has encountered some reluctance about allowing cemetery trustees to spend principal. He added, however, that, in his view, allowing a maximum amount of local control over rural graveyards would be a positive step.

“There is some cause for hesitation on that,” Andrews said. “But I believe local people will be better at exercising responsibility for those cemeteries than the state of Missouri is.”