BELOIT – John Kalkirtz always learns something about those buried beneath the cemetery markers he uprights or pulls from sinking into the ground.
Armed with his "Grave Detective" binder, Kalkirtz recently scouted the 28 acres of Oakwood Cemetery.
With his eyes and his feet, he was able to detect where the earth had settled into burial plots after caskets without vaults deteriorated. The settling can cause burial markers to twist, turn, topple and sink.
He then marked what he saw on a cemetery grave site map before planning which markers to straighten.
The 68-year-old Beloit man has restored 54 burial markers in two years.
"Cemeteries have been a place I have been drawn to even as a child," Kalkirtz said.
Their history, rituals, monuments and structures fascinate him.
Kalkirtz is one of two volunteers at the 28-acre cemetery that opened in 1840. Peggy Walrath, who lives across from the Clary Street cemetery, began headstone preservation in 2013 after discovering that she and her dog were walking on someone's grave.
It upset her so much she contacted the cemetery office to see if she could unearth and preserve other burial markers. Since getting the OK, she has discovered 268 grave markers, including some that professionals have since restored.
The volunteer work of Kalkirtz and Walrath is critical, said Robert Pokorney II, city cemetery coordinator. "We don't have enough resources or personnel to do all that needs to be done," he said. Families who once cared for the graves have either moved away or are no longer alive, he said.
"If we could get at least a dozen people, they could work on different parts of the cemetery," Kalkirtz said.
Oakwood Cemetery has 18,000 grave sites in nine sections. Another 31,000 grave sites are spread across 60 acres of the city's other graveyard, Eastlawn Cemetery, which opened in 1922, he said.
Pokorney said he'd take as many volunteers as he could get. Tombstone, headstone and monument restoration is hired out, but not done often because of a lack of funding, Pokorney said.
Money spent on restoration work is only for stones of those with historic significance and ties to the community, such as city pioneers, he said.
Kalkirtz spends up to four hours a week slowing the rate of burial marker deterioration.
"It helps maintain the history of our community," he said.