Iron Cross Cemeteries
"Grampa had an iron cross grave marker which seems so much kinder than the cold stone markers on some of the other graves. It is made of iron that is shaped and curved to form an interesting design. ...and looks like it could have grown from the earth it is planted in. ... The stones are solidly there, I can't help but see them, whereas the iron crosses are almost spiritual." This quote is from Phyllis Hertz Feser as recorded in the book, "Iron Spirits" and reflects her feelings concerning the wrought iron crosses in the cemetery near the land her family settled in Morton County.
Observations of most cemeteries in the state show a preponderance of stone monuments, mostly of marble or granite, or bronze plates to mark the graves of family members. Most are of a simple design with the inscriptions in a variation in styles, but some may be sculptured or cast in the form of angels, cherubs or other ornate designs. But in the grasslands of the Great Plains states, especially in North Dakota, the areas where Germans from Russia settlements sprang up are dotted with cemeteries that contain iron crosses.
Originally, wooden markers were placed on the graves, but subjected to the elements, they soon split or rotted and were of relatively short duration. Handcrafted iron markers were already in use by many of the Eastern European settlers prior to their arrival in the United States, and for many groups, these were part of their funerary traditions.
Most of these stylistic metal markers have a unique design reflecting the abilities of the craftsman or blacksmith. Family members with metal working skills were often called upon to supply the crosses for loved ones. Some individuals even made their own crosses to ensure that their final resting place would be properly marked. Commercial, foundry produced crosses, advertized in German-language newspapers, became available, but over time it was the local, individually produced crosses that came to be regarded as a true folk art. Styles range from simple hearts or crosses to very intricate patterns of curled and twisted wrought iron pieces situated on slender metal struts anchored to the ground. Names and dates were stamped into the metal plates or cross-beams as part of the memorial.
Due to the unique features of these iron crosses and their relationship to the ethnic heritage of North Dakota, a number of these cemeteries have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This is National Historic Preservation Month. Look around you — enjoy our truly interesting past and help preserve North Dakota's treasures.
Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis
Iron Spirits - editors, Nicholas Curchin Vrooman, project director, Patrice Avon Marvin; photographers, Jane Gudmundson, Wayne Gudmundson. North Dakota Council on the Arts - 1982
National Historic Preservations Application - Holy Trinity Cemetery