Joe Thiessen never struggled to pay homage to his late father.
For over 70 years he was able to visit his father’s last resting place near Altona – until recently.
Thiessen, who is originally from the area but has lived in Winnipeg for years, said when he and his wife visited the cemetery on Father’s Day, they encountered a farmer who had purchased the land. They were told that they could not go to the cemetery because a crop had been planted around.
“I didn’t think there would be a problem because I’ve been riding a trail for years,” Thiessen said.
“He said (we) can get in in the winter but it’s in the middle of a square mile. Anyone that’s directly related to anyone out there is a senior. How are they going to walk that far and into winter?
“How could someone just buy a cemetery?” How could anyone just buy my father’s grave?
Thiessen noted that his father’s grave had a marker, which he put on the ground a few years ago. Other aging tombstones, several of which are lined up, mark the spot where several other people are buried. He said he can tell there are other graves that don’t have markers.
Jacob Thiessen, born January 14, 1894, married twice and had 18 children. He died on October 2, 1950, at the age of 56. He was buried in a cemetery six kilometers west of Altona, in the RM of Rhineland. His first wife, Margaretha, died in 1930 and is also buried there.
Unlike municipal cemeteries such as Brookside in Winnipeg and church-run or private cemeteries, Bergfeld, also known as North Neuhoffnung Cemetery, has never been licensed by the province.
A spokesperson for the province said John Delaney, an inspector with the Manitoba Funeral Board, looked into the matter and concluded that the board had no authority over the cemetery because it was not authorized.
The spokesperson said Delaney told the family they should contact the RCMP about the cemetery.
RCMP spokeswoman Tara Seel said the local detachment investigated and determined that there was nothing illegal.
“The landowner didn’t want anyone driving on the field until the crop fell,” Seel said.
“However, the landowner has allowed access to the site on foot. The Cemeteries Act has been revised and the landowner is responsible for maintaining the burial site, but has no further obligations.”
The owner could not be reached for comment.
Rhineland Prefect Don Wiebe said many small cemeteries dot the land of his municipality, which is not responsible for them. Some are named and many are not. There are probably many more in the province.
“A few guys have done a study and there are 200 (in the Rhineland), and a lot of them are not active now,” said Wiebe.
“We have sites, not in use, that people take care of. But sometimes they are abandoned and neglected. That’s when those sites almost disappear.”
Suesan Munro, a granddaughter of Jacob Thiessen, said she has been to the cemetery at least three times in her life and hopes to return from her home in Alberta when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
Munro said cemeteries should never be included in a land sale and no one should be denied access to them.
“It’s overwhelming,” she said. “Burial sites are sacred. It is sacrilege.
“There must be respect.”
Another granddaughter, Janet Braybrook of Alberta, said she researched her ancestors and discovered that the land where the cemetery is located was part of a farm owned by the Sawatzky family , whom Jacob Thiessen married.
“My great-grandparents were on this earth and I guess that’s why they’re here,” Braybrook said.
“The family has worked the land for years. I think if you take the cemetery away, it’s like you don’t exist. I hope that never will.”
Kevin Rollason is one of the Winnipeg Free Press’s most versatile journalists. Whether covering town hall, courthouse or general reporting, Rollason can not only answer the 5 W’s – Who, What, When, Where and Why – but do so in an engaging and accessible way for readers. . .
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