Marc Houseman never met a woman he has come to call “Aunt Dorthea.” She had been dead already for 20 years when, as a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Lodge in Washington, Houseman took charge of her cremated remains to be placed in the columbarium at the Wildey Odd Fellows Cemetery.
“We logged her in like anybody else,” said Houseman, noting Aunt Dorthea had died in 1996 and arrived at the columbarium in 2016.
For the two decades in between, she had been left at the crematory in St. Louis, unclaimed by any family members.
Then about a year and a half after Aunt Dorthea was placed in the columbarium here, Houseman received a call from a young woman who had been doing genealogy research online and found an entry showing her aunt’s remains were in Washington unclaimed. No one in the family could believe it, he said. They were told an uncle had collected Aunt Dorthea’s remains and had her buried.
“She had a lot at Bellefontaine Cemetery with a tombstone even,” said Houseman.
He set up a time to meet some of the family members so they could collect Aunt Dorthea’s remains, and it was emotional for everyone.
“Within minutes we were all crying and hugging, like we’d known each other forever,” Houseman recalled. “They couldn’t believe that the Odd Fellows or any organization would do what we had done for Aunt Dorthea, and we made a friendship.”
Two months later, he received an email from that young woman who had initially contacted him, sharing the news that the family was getting together — some of whom hadn’t seen each other in 40 years — to bury Aunt Dorthea. And the next day many of them wanted to come to Washington, to meet the people who had shown their aunt so much compassion.
“I was so touched by that,” said Houseman, who had worked as a funeral director for many years before becoming the executive director for the Washington Historical Society Museum.
So while burying the dead was once part of Houseman’s work, today it is part of his mission as a member of the local Odd Fellows organization, which this year is celebrating its 200th anniversary in America.
The lodge in Washington was established in 1855 and remained in continuous operation ever since.
Founded on the principles of charity, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows’ mantra is “to visit the sick, relieve the distressed, educate the orphan and bury the dead.”
“In the good old days, they built orphanages all over the world and nursing homes for their members,” said Houseman, noting the Washington Odd Fellows also awards scholarships to children or grandchildren of members.
“The heart in the hand is the Odd Fellows symbol of charity,” he said. “They extend their heart to those in need.”
The main symbol of the Odd Fellows is three interlocking chain links, which symbolize friendship, love and truth.
Rare Organization Is Gaining Members
Houseman joined the Washington Odd Fellows about 20 years ago at the urging of a friend who was worried about what would happen to the Wildey Odd Fellows Cemetery, located on 5 acres at the corner of Westridge Drive and Wildey Way near the Washington KC Hall should the lodge fold, like so many others around the country had already.
Back then there were around 13 members in Washington, all men and many quite elderly, said Houseman. Nearly all of them had lost interest in the organization by that time. They had joined years earlier when the group was more active.
“The Odd Fellows, at one time, was, membershipwise, the largest fraternal organization in the United States,” said Houseman. “In Missouri alone in 1900, there were 200,000 Odd Fellows.
“Right now, there are 700 in the entire state, and 30 of those are here in Washington.”
The Washington Odd Fellows Lodge is the only one in the state that is gaining in membership. These are men and women who appreciate the continuity or history of the organization but who also have a strong sense of compassion.
The Odd Fellows is not a church-affiliated group, although members are asked when they join if they believe in a supreme being.
The group meets twice a month, on the first and third Mondays in the Odd Fellows building located on the cemetery grounds. Over the last 164 years, they have met in a few different places, including the old Elks Hall when it was located in Downtown Washington.
The Odd Fellows used some of its savings to erect a metal building at the cemetery around 1990, believing if the group did fold the building could be used for cemetery purposes.
Today the Washington Odd Fellows is growing, albeit slowly. The group adds an average of one new member a year, and loses a member to death about every five years. Currently most of the members are middle-aged, although some are older.
The group doesn’t do a lot of events each year, but what is extremely popular is the Wildey Cemetery Tour held in the fall before Halloween. They also host a couple of memorial services each year on the Saturday before Memorial Day. One is for Washington members who have passed away, and the other is for the men and women whose unclaimed remains are in the columbarium.
The ceremony, which will be held Saturday, May 25, at 9 a.m. this year, is open to the public. People are welcome to come watch and pay their respects, said Houseman.
Columbarium Is Biggest Mission Now
When the Odd Fellows Columbarium was built at Wildey Cemetery six years ago, it may have gone unnoticed by many in the community, but people all over the St. Louis Metro area and beyond know about it.
“It’s the only one like it in the world,” said Houseman, noting that the remains stored there are all unclaimed.
Burying the dead is the one commandment of the Odd Fellows’ mission that the Washington group is able to actively support right now, both through the cemetery and the columbarium.
“We can’t afford to build an orphanage, but we can afford to keep up the cemetery,” said Houseman. “The cemetery is open to anyone.”
Around 1,200 people are buried at the Wildey Odd Fellows Cemetery, which has been around since 1865 and is still active, burying around two people each year. More than 1,300 people have been placed in the columbarium, which is located underground right next to the lodge building on the cemetery grounds.
The front exterior has a nice, simple granite slab. The interior is very utilitarian with a row of metal shelving units lining the walls where the small black boxes of remains are kept.
Each box has the name of the individual on the front, if it’s known, and a number etched on the top.
Plans for the columbarium began in 2011, when the leader of the Grand Lodge of Missouri, who was a Vietnam veteran, approached the Washington lodge to inquire about adding the columbarium here. Initially, his goal was to create a final resting place for veterans whose cremated remains were unclaimed, said Houseman.
The Washington members suggested that the columbarium be open to any Missouri resident who is unclaimed, not just veterans, since veterans remains can be buried in any veterans cemetery, like Jefferson Barracks, for no charge, as long as you can prove they served honorably, Houseman pointed out.
The state leaders agreed, and the the Odd Fellows Columbarium was funded by the Grand Lodge of Missouri, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and the Odd Fellows Home Board of Directors. It was dedicated in May 2013.
“Our lodge sent letters to every funeral home and crematory in Missouri, saying we will take your unclaimed remains and, if need be, we will make arrangements to come get them,” said Houseman.
Since then the group has received more than 1,300 remains, all of which are numbered and documented. The information is posted to the Find a Grave website, where people search to locate where a family member may be buried or entombed.
“We have reconnected more than 20 families, who have come to claim remains,” said Houseman, noting there are a variety of reasons why remains go unclaimed. Some include rifts in families or other unusual circumstances.
“They’re all interesting stories,” Houseman said. “Last week I shipped a man’s ashes to Georgia to his son. The son called me, had found his dad listed on the internet . . . His brother had claimed the ashes, but when he was sent to prison, he lost track of them.”
Since 2013, the Washington Odd Fellows have participated in four or five burial ceremonies at Jefferson Barracks for unclaimed veterans remains. Not all of the remains had come out of the Washington columbarium, Houseman said. Some of the area crematoriums have been inspired by the Odd Fellows’ actions to pursue veterans’ burials on their own.
“We buried two Civil War veterans who had been dead for more than 90 years at Jefferson Barracks, and both veterans had family present at the ceremony,” said Houseman. “There are a lot of great stories like that with the columbarium.”
One of the more moving stories occurred late last year, when the Odd Fellows helped arrange for the burial of James Helton, a Vietnam veteran who had served in the Air Force and had died in St. Louis while caring for his brother with special needs and gone unclaimed in the morgue for three months.
“No family members were stepping forward, and in another few months they would have buried him in a pauper’s grave,” said Houseman, who fielded a phone call regarding the remains as part of his service with the Odd Fellows.
It also turned out that Helton was originally from Franklin County, and after some research, Houseman discovered that his parents were buried at Luebbering, southeast of St. Clair. A phone call to the cemetery there revealed that the parents actually had prepurchased two grave spaces for their sons as well.
The Washington Odd Fellows arranged to have Helton cremated for free, since the organization takes all of the unclaimed remains from crematories in St. Louis, and then planned a service for him at the Luebbering cemetery. The American Legion Freedom Riders provided an escort, and members of the Washington VFW Honor Guard provided the colors. The cemetery allowed the Odd Fellows to dig the grave and bury the remains, free of charge.
“There were 50 people there, none of whom knew him,” said Houseman, but he was given the kind of service that he deserved.
Six years ago during the dedication of the columbarium, Houseman said the sad statistical fact is that each year 7,000 Missourians are cremated never to have their ashes collected by family or friends.
“Seven thousand human beings, in this state alone, whose remains are destined for storage rooms, closets, undisclosed scattering sites and yes, even to landfills,” he said. “Missouri law allows for cremated remains to be disposed of in any manner after 60 days. Yes, it is legal to dump someone’s ashes in the garbage.”
The columbarium proves beyond a doubt that Missouri’s Odd Fellows are deeply committed to their 200-year-old commandment to bury the dead.
The Washington Odd Fellows welcome new members. For more information, people can contact Houseman at 636-239-0280, or attend the annual memorial service Saturday, May 25, at 9 a.m. at Wildey Odd Fellows Cemetery.