Driven by a deep respect for human life, Charles Rieland has made it his personal mission to scour old cemeteries and overgrown burial sites, locating the unmarked graves of long-forgotten people and doing what he can to keep their legacies alive.
Over the last six years, Rieland, who was a Korean War paratrooper, has marked more than 60 veterans’ graves with 230-pound marble headstones provided by the federal government and placed 185 homemade aluminum crosses on abandoned burial plots of 19th-century pioneers.
“I read about how hard those early settlers worked, and I thought, an unmarked grave can’t be the end of their story,” says Rieland, 69, of Delano, Minn. “It just didn’t seem right to me.”
Rieland’s mission started some years ago when he was puzzled by a grave marker bearing the maiden name of his former wife. He checked historical records and discovered that a 3-year-old girl was buried there. Then Rieland encountered the gravestone of someone named Martin. A records check revealed Martin’s children were buried in unmarked graves nearby, along with two brothers who were Civil War veterans.
Rieland had read stories about Delano-area men who fought in the Civil War and marveled at tales of settlers who spent all summer clearing a single acre of land, grubbing out trees with an ax. For any of these people to be buried without a trace didn’t set right with Rieland.
He began looking up and making copies of old obituaries—10,000 in all—and discovered that many dead were unaccounted for in local cemeteries. He started walking through those cemeteries looking for slight depressions that might be unmarked gravesites or other clues. When he discovered that the federal government provides free markers for every veteran in an unmarked grave, Rieland vowed to do his part to honor them.
For unmarked civilian graves, Rieland makes aluminum crosses and cements each cross into a flowerpot (so it can’t be yanked up by pranksters). Then, he digs a hole for the pots at each gravesite.
Having explored and researched many local burial sites, Rieland has gained a reputation as a graveyard sleuth. Now, people from other states seek him out to locate lost graves of family members buried in Wright and other nearby counties.
One such request came from a woman in Texas looking for her grandparents’ graves. “I found them—and 20 other family members she didn’t know existed,” Rieland says with a smile.
Thanks to Rieland, the Delano Public Cemetery has undergone a needed expansion and old, forgotten burial grounds around the region have been cleaned up, says Allen Swenson, a member of the cemetery board.
“Charlie Rieland is now president of the board, and he’s the perfect man for that job,” Swenson adds. “He’s got the time for it and really likes what he’s doing.”
He also is good at contacting businesses to solicit donations for the cemetery and places bows on the crosses he’s made on Memorial Day, says Neva Adickes, a cemetery board member who has known Rieland since childhood.
Since retiring from the insurance business in 1996, Rieland has worked at cemetery sleuthing nearly full time. Sometimes he finds cemetery records of deaths, then hunts for the burial spot. Other times, he fields phone calls from people telling him of abandoned gravesites they recalled seeing as a child.
“Charles Rieland is very dedicated, and when he gets on a project, he’s persistent and just keeps going on it,” says history buff William Eppel, charter member of the Delano-Franklin Township Area Historical Society. He often turns to Rieland when he’s looking for information about deceased Delano residents.
By remembering the forgotten and keeping their legacies alive, Rieland is recognizing the mortality of us all.
“I’d like someone to remember me 100 years from now,” he says.