Joe Thiessen never had trouble paying his respects to his late father.
For more than 70 years, he’s been able to visit his dad’s final resting spot near Altona — until recently.
Thiessen, who is originally from the area, but has lived in Winnipeg for years, said when he and his wife went to the cemetery on Father’s Day, they met a farmer who had bought the land. They were told they couldn’t go to the cemetery because a crop had been planted around it.
"I didn’t think there would be a problem because I’ve been driving in on a trail for years," said Thiessen.
"He said (we) can come in during wintertime but it is in the middle of a square mile. Anybody who is directly related to anyone there is a senior citizen. How are they going to walk that far and in winter?
"How could anyone just buy a cemetery? How could someone just buy my dad’s grave?"
"He said (we) can come in during wintertime but it is in the middle of a square mile. Anybody who is directly related to anyone there is a senior citizen. How are they going to walk that far and in winter?" – Joe Thiessen
Thiessen noted his dad’s grave has a marker, which he put on the plot a few years ago. Other aging gravestones, several of which are in a single line, mark where several other people are buried. He said he can tell there are other graves that have no markers.
Jacob Thiessen, who was born on Jan. 14, 1894, married twice and fathered 18 children. He died on Oct. 2, 1950, at age 56. He was buried in a cemetery six kilometres west 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 graveyards, Bergfeld, also called the North Neuhoffnung Cemetery, was never licensed by the province.
A spokesman for the province said John Delaney, an inspector with the Funeral Board of Manitoba, looked into the matter and concluded the board has no authority over the cemetery because it isn’t licensed.
The spokesman said Delaney told the family they should contact the RCMP about the cemetery.
RCMP spokeswoman Tara Seel said the local detachment investigated and determined nothing illegal had taken place.
"The landowner did not want anyone driving on the field until the crop comes off," said Seel.
"However, the landowner did grant access to the site by foot. The Cemetery Act was reviewed and the landowner has a responsibility to maintain the gravesite, but has no further obligation."
The landowner could not be reached for comment.
RM of Rhineland Reeve Don Wiebe said many such small cemeteries dot the land in his municipality, which isn’t responsible for them. Some are named and many are not. There are likely many more across the province.
“It is upsetting. Burial sites are sacred. This is a sacrilege. There needs to be due respect.” – Suesan Munro
"A couple of guys did a study and there are 200 of them (in Rhineland), and a lot of them aren’t active now," said Wiebe.
"We have some sites, not used, which people take care of. But, sometimes, they get dropped off and neglected. It’s then these sites almost disappear."
Suesan Munro, a granddaughter of Jacob Thiessen, said she has been to the graveyard at least three times during her lifetime and is hoping to go there again from her home in Alberta when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
Munro said graveyards should never be included in a land sale and no one should be denied access to them.
"It is upsetting," she said. "Burial sites are sacred. This is a sacrilege.
"There needs to be due respect."
“The family worked the land for years. I think if you take out the cemetery it is like you didn’t exist. I hope that never happens.” – Janet Braybrook
Another granddaughter, Janet Braybrook of Alberta, said she has researched her ancestry and found the plot of land where the graveyard is located used to be part of a farm owned by the Sawatzky family, which Jacob Thiessen married into.
"My great-grandparents were on that land and I guess that’s why they are there," said Braybrook.
"The family worked the land for years. I think if you take out the cemetery it is like you didn’t exist. I hope that never happens."
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.