After twenty years serving the City of Marshfield, Mike Baltus will retire as Cemetery Coordinator on December 31.
Born and raised in Marshfield, Baltus ran a local body shop before deciding to change careers when the cemetery position opened. “I just wanted something different, completely different, away from the automotive industry,” he said. “I liked the idea of being able to work outside for three days a week, then inside the office three days a week.”
Baltus stepped into the position officially on November 2, 1998 and took on responsibility for the maintenance of the grounds, equipment, buildings, and services for three cemeteries: Hillside, Gate of Heaven, and Immanuel Lutheran. These duties include working with funeral homes to arrange burials, overseeing the cutting of grass and shoveling of snow, and directing anyone who needs use of cemetery services.
When he started, everything was done on hard copies. The difficulty of finding a gravestone spurred his most ambitious project – writing down the names and dates of every single gravestone and creating an online, interactive locator.
“Imagine going out and finding a 4 by 10 piece of property in 58 acres,” said Baltus, who used to devote around twenty hours a month assisting genealogists. “Now I have all this information, birth dates and death dates.”
Thousands of hours were spent recording details from 12,000 markers in all three cemeteries. Baltus undertook the task for Hillside and Immanuel Lutheran, receiving assistance from the genealogical society for Gate of Heaven and a GIS coordinator for the site development. Continual updates are made throughout the year.
Anywhere from 12 burials to none at all take place each week, year-round. Compared to twenty years ago, cremation is much more common, making up half of all burials. Other practices haven’t changed – using capital letters for gravestones, for example, despite the capabilities of modern technology.
“Way back when people started doing granite headstones, capital letters were straighter and easier to chisel, rather than the lowercase,” explained Baltus. “All of them [today] have capital letters because it was something that was started, and never changed.”
Other cemetery tasks are undertaken by a network of volunteers, mainly to assist with the cleaning and straightening of veteran markers. While not part of his official duties, Baltus straightens around forty stones a year where families have moved away.
Upon retirement, Baltus plans to spend more time with his four grandkids. The duties of the coordinator position will be assimilated by two existing employees of the City for the grounds and clerical work.
But being caretaker of a cemetery is more interesting than someone might think, believe it or not.
“Every week’s a different week. That’s probably what I enjoy about it, is nothing stays the same,” said Baltus. “It’s a totally different wrinkle to almost every situation you run into.”
However, interesting doesn’t extend to anything ghost-related. Baltus said he hasn’t heard of any hauntings, though one time ghost investigators asked permission from the police department to stay overnight with special equipment to seek out anything strange. The visit went well, but nothing of interest was found.
Though no ghosts apparently roam the area, Baltus does come across a lot of wildlife who stake out a place in the cemetery. The tracks of raccoons, bobcats, foxes, bears, and especially deer can be spotted.
“Life goes on at the cemetery, what can I say,” he said.