From backyard to graveyard: Man follows clues, returns headstone to proper place

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ST. GEORGE, Utah - A St. George couple said family history helped them get a headstone they found in their back yard back to the cemetery it belongs in.

Donovan Oliver was doing some yard work last week, removing trees and moving rocks when he found one stone that stood out.

“I pulled one of the rocks over and saw that there was writing on it,” Oliver said. “So we cleaned it off and did some research to see if we could find out where it belonged or who it belonged to.”

The headstone bore the name John Martin, who died in infancy, but no last name. The tombstone did list the child’s parents. Through online genealogy records, they traced the family to the town of Virgin, about 20 miles away.

“It was just an exciting moment,” said Virgin cemetery sexton Lenny Brinkerhoff. “This little baby had died when it was a month old, the first of their family here in Virgin.”

Brinkerhoff knew exactly to whom the headstone belonged, the baby also being her distant relative. John Martin Cornelius was the third child born to Henry and Mariam Cornelius. He was born in December 1885 and passed away in January 1886. The Cornelius family is prominent in Virgin, also being connected to one of the major players of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Brinkerhoff placed the headstone next to that of his mother. But the mystery does continue a little bit, because while they do have birth and death records for John Martin, they can’t be sure where he is buried.

“I’m not exactly sure if he’s buried up here,” Brinkerhoff said. “He could be buried downtown, behind one of the homes they lived in, we don’t know.”

It’s also still unclear how the headstone made it to the Oliver’s back yard. One theory is the headstone maker, John Martin’s great, great nephew chipped the rock, and it was used for scraps.

Regardless, both Brinkerhoff and Oliver said it’s back where it belongs.

“I don’t know how it got here,” Oliver said. “But we feel blessed to be part of the process because it was a good experience.”

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