Here Lies History

Here Lies History

By Emily Rust

What happens to a cemetery when it closes? Who takes care of the people interred there? Who keeps their history alive?

Prospect Hill Cemetery, at the corner of 33rd and Parker streets in North Omaha, is one of the city’s oldest cemeteries. It stopped selling plots in 1952, limiting burials there to families who already had purchased plots.

For a while, it was a bit forgotten. With most markers dating back to the 19th century, living relatives were not always aware of family members interred there. Walk onto the cemetery grounds, and you will find names familiar to those who know Omaha’s history or, at least, its roads — Andrew Hanscom (pioneer lawyer, politician, real estate broker), George Lake (one of the first justices of the Nebraska Supreme Court) and Andrew Poppleton (founder of the first law firm in the Nebraska Territory, second mayor of Omaha). All three are buried at Prospect Hill, and all three have Omaha streets named after them.

“It’s a forgotten historic park, but very important in the history of Omaha,” says Barb Naughtin, a member of the Prospect Hill Cemetery Board.

About 10 years ago, Brian Kokensparger, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing (JMC), came to Prospect Hill in search of a quiet place to write. When he returned home, he searched for cemetery markers online, but could not find many for Prospect Hill.

Upon further research, he learned that Prospect Hill board members had electronically scanned all 13,000 burial permits — backing up original paper files dating back to 1855 — but those files were stored on a computer hard drive, limiting accessibility.

He then had an idea. Why not digitize and display the 13,000 Prospect Hill burial permits and create a searchable database of those interred there?

He has recruited students and alumni to help with the project. They are currently reviewing the scanned burial permits, taking information written in pristine 19th century cursive and “translating” it onto a 21st century digital form. So far, more than 3,000 permits have been entered into the database.

“We’re trying to capture all that data,” Kokensparger says, making it “not just available for people doing genealogical research, but also for people who want to do historical research using the data that comes out of these burial permits.”

Vivian Amu, BA’02, has entered in more than 2,000 permits herself. She wanted to practice the database skills she had learned in Kokensparger’s computer science class. But she quickly discovered that the permits were more than just a collection of data points.

“I could almost envision people living,” says Amu. “I preserve their stories.”

In the data, Kokensparger and his team are discovering, or rediscovering, more about the history of Omaha.

At Prospect Hill lies Omaha’s famous, such as Byron Reed (1829-1891), pioneer, politician and founder of the first real estate company in the Nebraska Territory; its infamous, such as madam Anna Wilson (1835-1911), who was buried under six feet of granite so no one would attempt to move her body; and its tragic headliners of the day, such as four young boys killed in an explosion in 1884, who are memorialized by pillars of different heights representing their ages.

More often, the stories behind the headstones are a bit more mundane, but nevertheless offer a fascinating glimpse of 19th-century life in Omaha.

“I think there’s plenty of opportunity for spiritual reflection on our own mortality, and on what life was like,” says Kokensparger.

The hardest part for him: permits of infant burials, which were all too common in the 1800s.

“I end up having a real feeling of sympathy for the people who are buried there, especially children,” says Kokensparger.

From this data, historians and genealogists alike can draw inferences of a past culture and people; families can learn more about long-lost relatives; and the public can come to better know Omaha’s pioneers.

Once all the data is entered, Kokensparger envisions a digital guide to the cemetery, wherein visitors, standing in front of a headstone, could use their phones to pull up a burial permit, old newspaper articles and other information about the person buried there.