2018-12-06 / Life in Leelanau

Sexton job ‘anything but morbid’ in Leland

By Alan Campbell
of the Enterprise Staff


SEXTON BARB WOODS leans on two of the three beech trees remaining in Beechwood Cemetery. The giant beeches, for which the cemetery was named, have all died. SEXTON BARB WOODS leans on two of the three beech trees remaining in Beechwood Cemetery. The giant beeches, for which the cemetery was named, have all died. Leland Township sexton Barb Woods thought her new job might be morbid, but she applied anyway.

It’s been anything but, reports the Lake Leelanau resident who just completed her first season.

She’s had to become part sleuth.

“It’s been much more of a challenge that way,” Woods said. “I’m enjoying it.”

For instance, the family of Betty Bauer knew that she owned a burial plot in Beechwood Cemetery, but township records have never been digitized. The cemetery “library” is akin to hundreds of pages of ledger sheets bound into black books. If a family knows a date of purchase for a lot, no problem.

But Woods couldn’t simply search for “Bauer” and find an entry for the transaction.


FRESH SNOW blanketed the grave markers last week at Beechwood Cemetery, on the shore of Lake Leelanau north of Leland. FRESH SNOW blanketed the grave markers last week at Beechwood Cemetery, on the shore of Lake Leelanau north of Leland. In the Bauer family case, more was needed. Woods finally got things settled after looking under “Dunklow,” which is Bauer’s maiden name.

“But she’s been ‘Bauer’ for 60 years,” she said. “That drove me crazy for two whole days. It’s very interesting because I love history.

Rather than morbid, Woods finds personal reward in helping families during times of need. In another instance this summer, a long-time Leland family learned while receiving a burial permit that its patriarch had years ago bought eight graves in Beechwood. After interring grandfather, they had seven remaining. They also learned that up to six urns can be placed in a grave in place of one casket.

“They sold back four graves — half of the lots. They kept the three surrounding grandpa, and the other four were open for someone else to own,” Woods recalled.

All eight lots were purchased decades ago for $20. Three were sold back to the township for $300 apiece, and they will be resold to someone else for that same price.

“They made some money, and now it’s open for people who are waiting. This happened in my first summer. I can see this happening every year, and that will help everyone. It’s a win-win,” Woods said.

The transactions are important because the old story about “people dying to get in the cemetery” doesn’t always work at Beechwood, which is sold out. There’s a waiting list for one of its 2,240 burial lots. East Leland Cemetery, with 1,064 lots, is about half sold.

She is now administering an updated cemetery ordinance that for the first time includes a provision for the township to reclaim lots after they remain vacant for 40 years. But the rule only applies to purchases made after the update was passed, and the township will do all it can to track down original owners, Woods said.

At 64, Woods said accepting the sexton position is becoming an important part of her effort to “slow down.” She and her partner own Birchwood Horticultural Services, which they run out of their home near Lake Leelanau.

She has issued 15 burial permits so far.

“I’m glad it became available and I’m glad I read the paper on the right day and applied,” Woods said.

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