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Grave undertaking: Utahn tracking down burial plots of all his ancestors

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 6:02 a.m. MDT

Lee Romrell poses at his home with one of his books of grave pictures. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News) Lee Romrell poses at his home with one of his books of grave pictures. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News)

Lee Romrell knows where all the bodies are buried.

For the past several years, he has been tracking down and trying to get pictures of all the grave sites of his ancestors and family members, which he has now compiled into a family scrapbook.

"I think this helps us appreciate them a little more," he says. "My children and relatives will also be able to have a better connection with their ancestors. This is a great legacy to our loved ones who have passed on."

Romrell started with the first ancestors that came to America: Francis and Mary Romeril, who came in 1855 from Jersey, in the Channel Islands of England.

"But notice the difference in spelling," he says. That was the original spelling, but, somehow, with Francis and Mary's children, it got changed to Romrell.

Lee Romrell walks through a cemetery. Romrell collects books of pictures of his family's headstones. His photos are from all over the continent.    (Michael Brandy, Deseret News) Lee Romrell walks through a cemetery. Romrell collects books of pictures of his family's headstones. His photos are from all over the continent. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News)

Francis and Mary had 11 children. Six of them came to Utah, although not all at the same time. Most settled in the Ogden area, but one daughter went to Canada, and other family members eventually scattered all over. Romrell ended up tracking cemeteries in such places as Ontario, Canada, North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Alabama, California, Montana; Nevada, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, as well as various locations around Utah.

He has visited those that are nearby, but for many of the far-away graves, he had to rely on help from total strangers.

"When people found out what I'm doing, they have been very, very helpful," he says. He wrote to city governments and public works departments. In Brantford, Ontario, Canada, he talked to a woman in one of the city offices and asked if there was any way he could get a picture of a certain grave. "She and a co-worker went out in the middle of winter, stood in a foot of snow, took pictures and sent them to me. She said it was a real treat to be able to help."

This grave stone in Robin, Idaho, is one from relatives of Lee Romrell. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News) This grave stone in Robin, Idaho, is one from relatives of Lee Romrell. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News)

In Mandan, N.D., "I happened to call at a time when they were dealing with a flooded river. A guy told me he was busy right then with the flood, but he promised that after that, he would get me a picture. Sure enough, four months later, he went out and took pictures for me. It seems like I've always found people to help me out."

But it hasn't always been easy. He struggled for over a year to find a grave in Rogersville, Penn. "I couldn't find any links. It turned out the cemetery was privately owned. I finally found an e-mail address of a woman who had done an index of cemeteries in the area. And she just happened to have a friend that had taken photos of every grave. She was able to access his CD, and I got my photo. Sometimes, you have to go in an indirect way, but it's been fascinating."

He has done a lot of his research over the Internet; there are a lot of helpful websites, he says. Many municipal cemeteries now have indexes online.

Lee Romrell takes a photograph of his parents' tombstone at the Midvale City Cemetery. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News) Lee Romrell takes a photograph of his parents' tombstone at the Midvale City Cemetery. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News)

But he also enjoys it when he can get out and visit the cemeteries on his own.

"There's something intriguing about roaming through a cemetery and checking out gravestones, especially when they are our ancestors."

Some graves can be very informative, he says. "I found the grave of my great-grandfather in Bennington, Idaho. Daniel Mark Burbank was married to two women at the same time, and when he died, someone listed the two wives on the back of the headstone, plus a list of all the children from each wife and when they were born and when they died. It was a fascinating find."

You can also learn a lot by the style and location of the headstone, he says. Some stones are very ornate, others more plain.

"Sometimes, even the location of a grave in a small cemetery can be a status symbol. In Mandan, N.D., for example, it is easy to tell how important a person was in the community by the section of the cemetery where he is buried."

He's discovered some other interesting facts. Such as:

The grave for Margaret E. Romrell lists her birth date as April 16, 1885, but there is no death date. "She died in 1959, but they had no children, and I guess no one bothered to put the death date on the gravestone."

In the Ogden cemetery, there are stones for a Baby Romrell and for a Mary Ann. These would have been the children of Francis and Mary, but they died in the Isle of Jersey. "So I think these are just for remembrance," says Romrell. There was a baby who died before the family emigrated, and "Mary Ann would have been over 21 when Francis and his family left for America. She was not on the ship, so she must have stayed in Jersey. We have no other information about her."

Ida Williamene Ducloux married at age 17 and moved to Idaho to settle a new town called Taylor, just east of Shelley. A year later, she died of complications from childbirth. Hers was the second grave in the new cemetery. Her mother came from Ogden to take the baby, Charles Eric, back home to raise him. Charles Eric grew up, married, had two children and then died at age 25, just before his third child was born.

Another thing Romrell gets a kick out of is the fact that there is a headstone in the Bountiful Cemetery with his name on it. His first wife died of cancer at age 47. "Notice that my death date is blank," he jokes, "and I hope it remains that way for a long time."

You quickly realize, says Romrell, that the gravestones represent so much more than names and dates.

"Even though I've never met some of these noble souls, I feel much closer to them when I actually see their graves."

Romrell has always been interested in history. He grew up in the mining community of Garfield and has spent a number of years compiling stories from that town-which-is-no-more.

"Then I decided I should work on my own family history and hit on this idea," he says. This book traces all the ancestors on his father's side. "Now, I guess I'll have to do my mother's family."

e-mail: carma@desnews.com

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