Grave Matters: Odd stories passed down

SALEM TWP. – Memories of the Mt. Ephraim Methodist Church and family members laid to rest in the adjacent cemetery keep many former members and descendants involved with the church nearly 60 years after regular services ceased.

But there are a couple of dark stories associated with the cemetery as well.

The original church was built in 1846 and given the name “Mt. Ephraim” after Ephraim Gould, who donated the land on what is now Hedrick Road, just off Ohio 145 nearly three miles north of Lower Salem. When a larger church was constructed around 1872, the graves at the cemetery had to be moved to their current location.

According to a history of the church written by the late Hilma True and posted at the entrance to the church, two men moving the graves were being a bit disrespectful as they worked.

“The man who was moving the graves said, ‘I am going to be Jesus Christ and raise the dead!'” True’s history says. “That night, he was taken sick and never left the house until he was taken to the cemetery. The other man who was helping him and (making) such remarks died that night.”

It’s a story that Carroll resident Daniel Smith, 33, remembers from his childhood.

“As a kid, you know, it kind of creeped me out,” he said. “It really kind of gets your mind going.”

Before the new church was dedicated, a funeral was held there for Henry Spencer, who shot himself, True’s history says.

“In those days, the Methodist Church did not permit anyone who had committed suicide to be buried in the cemetery,” it says. “So Henry Spencer was (buried) just outside what was then the potter’s field.”

Over the years, the cemetery expanded, and Spencer’s grave is now within its borders.

Smith learned these and other stories of the cemetery while researching his ancestry.

“Half my family’s buried in the graveyard,” he said. “I just like knowing my family’s history, where I’m from.”

Mt. Ephraim Methodist Church ceased holding regular services in the early 1950s, but a number of people who attended or are related to members return to it each year on the last weekend in July for a homecoming celebration that first took place in 1947. Among them is Smith’s second cousin, Muskingum Township resident Linda Boyce, treasurer of the group that continues to care for the church.

“I have only missed, I think, one” homecoming, she said. “We just all bring a covered dish, and at 2 o’clock someone rings the bell, and that’s when to come into the church.”

Boyce’s grandparents, the late Carl and Minnie Hallett, lived just down the road from the church. She and her sister used to walk three miles to attend Sunday school at the church then spend the afternoon with their grandparents.

When her grandparents died, Boyce said, they wanted to “come home.” Their visitations were held at the house, and then they were taken to the church and cemetery.

“I remember walking … behind the hearse as they brought them up this road,” Boyce said.

The church trustees turned the cemetery – and $1,367.22 for upkeep – over to the Salem Township trustees, who continue to maintain it. Over the years, the church trustees have continued to raise money, including through auctions at the homecomings, to repaint and repair the church. A new electrical system and meter were installed in 2011.

Last year, Boyce’s daughter, Mindy Cayton, had a display built and installed by the front door. In it are posted two historical sketches of the church, including True’s, and a listing of 180 grave markers that were read and recorded, although there are some additional ones that are no longer legible.

Minutes from past Mt. Ephraim homecomings reveal the United Methodist Conference indicated in 1976 that once there is no interest in the church and no trustees to care for it, it would be disposed of.

Boyce and others are determined not to let that happen.

“It’s just been really important to me to keep this church going, because if we don’t, it will be torn down,” she said.

Although the homecomings of late have turned into something of a gathering for Boyce’s extended family, she said they are open to anyone who wants to come.