Anne Konieczny’s ears perked up last year when she heard the name Trena Skaggs read during the annual Remembrance of the Dead ceremony held at the Wildey Odd Fellows Cemetery in Washington.
She recognized the name and was sad to learn that Skaggs’ cremated remains were unclaimed by any family members and resting in the Odd Fellows columbarium at the cemetery, which is located at the corner of Westridge Drive and Wildey Way near the Washington KC Hall.
Konieczny, Washington, has been a member of the International Order of Odd Fellows Lodge for a little more than two years, but the group was founded here in 1855 (the year the railroad arrived in Washington) and has remained in continuous operation ever since.
Last year, the organization celebrated its 200th anniversary in America.
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,” Marc Houseman told The Missourian for a story last year, 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.
Because one of the four main tenets of the Odd Fellows is to bury the dead, several years ago the Missouri’s Odd Fellows opened a columbarium in Washington at the Wildey Odd Fellows Cemetery, which members of the Washington lodge oversee.
Today it is the only one like it in the world, as far as the group can determine.
It 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 of cremains has the name of the individual on the front, if it’s known, and a number etched on the top. The information is posted to the Find a Grave website, where people search to locate where a family member may be buried or entombed.
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 1,600 people from all over Missouri have been placed in the columbarium.
Skaggs’ cremains were added in 2018.
‘I Felt Something Should Be Done’
Konieczny said as soon as she heard Skaggs’ name read during the 2019 remembrance ceremony she felt compelled to do something. She had heard the name many times and so she felt a connection with her.
“I don’t know if it was shock or disbelief, that someone in our own community ended up in this columbarium,” said Konieczny. “I just instantly felt like something should be done.”
She brought that up at the next Odd Fellows meeting, and the members talked about what they could do and how to go about it.
They would need a burial plot, which the Washington Odd Fellows could donate, but they also would need a headstone and a burial service.
Feeling the support of her fellow Odd Fellows, Konieczny earlier this year created a page on Facebook seeking donations to purchase a headstone for Skaggs. She named it Trena’s Final Resting Place.
“My goal was to raise $600 to buy a headstone,” said Konieczny.
She also reached out to Skaggs’ father at his last known address. She told him about the Odd Fellows plans for Skaggs’ cremains, wanting to know if he had any objections, but she received no response.
In the end, 25 people donated a total of $791.12 to Trena’s Final Resting Place. That was enough to cover the cost of the headstone, as well as an angel statue and flowers for the burial service, which was held this year on Saturday, May 23, as part of the Odd Fellow’s annual Remembrance of the Dead ceremony.
Skaggs’ remains were placed in an urn that was donated by the Missing in America Project.
The headstone is on order with Washington Monument Company.
‘Pleasant Demeanor’ and an Organ Donor
Konieczny said very little is known about Skaggs.
She was born Sept. 10, 1978, in St. Louis County, and died Oct. 21, 2018, at age 40.
Her organs were donated and perhaps gave someone else the gift of life with a transplant.
She received her education in Franklin County.
As an adult she led a “less than ideal life,” Houseman said, at the burial service. “She suffered physically from a chronic disease for most of her adult life, but maintained a pleasant demeanor and a gracious spirit . . . ”
She was preceded in death by her mother, who died in 2002. And one month after Skaggs died, her brother died in Florida. He is inurned in a military cemetery there.
“In ‘Oddfellowship,’ we are taught that all are equal in life as we are in death,” Houseman said at the burial service. “Today, we perform our duty as Odd Fellows to bury the dead, but also may we be mindful that there are thousands, perhaps millions, who live among us in poverty, illness, abusive situations, hunger and perhaps lacking a relationship with God.
“As we remember our sister Trena today, may we continue to help and pray for those less fortunate.”
Konieczny said the work she and her fellow Odd Fellows have done to see Skaggs’ cremains buried has brought her peace.
“It’s my calling as a member of the Odd Fellows to do this,” she remarked.
“When I recognized the name, I instantly felt like it’s a shame and that something should be done about it, but I really didn’t know how to go about it. It felt like too big of a task,” said Konieczny.
“But then it turned out to not really be that difficult because I got good help . . . the brothers and sisters of the Odd Fellows came together and just made it so easy to do.”
Unfortunately the group can’t do this for all of the unclaimed cremains at the columbarium, but they felt a special pull to do this for Skaggs’ because she was someone from the local community.
Rare Organization Is Gaining Members
If you have never heard of the Odd Fellows or are not familiar with the group, members are surprised. Membership is low, although the group has been gaining new members, albeit slowly, for several years.
Twenty years ago there were maybe 13 Odd Fellows in Washington, all men and many quite elderly, said Houseman. But at one time, the Odd Fellows as a group was the largest fraternal organization in the United States.
“In Missouri alone in 1900, there were 200,000 Odd Fellows,” Houseman said. “Right now, there are 700 in the entire state, and between 30 and 40 of those are here in Washington.”
Houseman noted that he believes 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 and who also have a strong sense of compassion, he remarked.
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 165 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.
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.
Since 2013, the Washington Odd Fellows have participated in several 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.
The Washington Odd Fellows welcome new members. For more information, people can contact Houseman at 636-239-0280.