QUINCY — In what's become a calling as much as a job, Eric Bruns cares for the remains of lives well-lived.
The tombstones, the grounds, the stories of Woodland Cemetery all are under the supervision of Bruns, the cemetery's superintendent for nearly four years.
And with his help, the cemetery dating to 1846 is yielding even more of its history.
"We have found or uncovered approximately 200 unmarked graves or stones that have been knocked over and grown over," Bruns said. "I'm still working through records to see if I can find out who is buried there."
To newly-discovered unmarked and unidentified graves, Bruns adds a wooden cross he fashions from treated 2x4s burned with a torch.
"Everybody deserves something," Bruns said. "It's just what you're supposed to do, to take care of these folks. It's just that simple. It's just the right thing to do."
It's also a career change for Bruns, who spent years in the golf course industry in Springfield, Ill., Texas and Nebraska. The job at Woodland "was a chance to come back home. I grew up in Camp Point," he said. "It's been nice to learn the history of the place. I didn't know this place existed when I was a kid."
Bruns works with his crew of four at the cemetery, but the team involved in the effort also includes Harrison Monuments, Gem City Memorials, members of the cemetery's board, the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, interested individuals, visitors to the cemetery and those who donate to help support it.
"We don't do many burials anymore. We're not selling a lot of lots," he said. "We need all the help we can get."
Help he provides to others includes digging through the cemetery's handwritten, and sometimes difficult to read, records. Work is underway to digitize the records, but in the meantime, Bruns carefully turns brittle pages, losing himself back in time – and in stories.
"I had no clue how much research there would be in this job. People call me daily, weekly, looking for somebody," he said.
Along the way, he finds lessons in family dynamics.
"The husband will be buried with the wife's folks. She'll be buried with his folks. With some of them, part of the family is on this end, part on the other. Some spellings are different when they came to America. Some are just misspelled," Bruns said.
He tells the story of a couple of ladies looking for their great-great-grandmother named Ada M. Collins. Into a second day of searching the cemetery record books with no success, Bruns walked through part of Woodland to help the ladies look at a site where the dates seemed to match up.
"It was just a misspelling. They had it in there as Adam," Bruns said. "It's the simplest things sometimes. I was just really glad we could make it happen."
Also happening are some physical improvements at Woodland.
"This place is a lot of work," he said. "We'll never get caught up. Mother Nature, she wins every time."
Stones have been re-set and cleaned. Overgrown brick roads have been cleared, and so has much of the brush that lined the western edge of Woodland.
"You couldn't even in most places see the river, and for this place, the view is kind of everything. It's just a beautiful place," he said. "A whole section over the hill had been let go over the years, I guess, and clearing that brush off uncovered a bunch of folks buried back in there."
The ongoing changes bring more people out just to enjoy Woodland's beauty.
"It's a park-style cemetery. I want people to come walk through here and enjoy it. We get bike riders, walkers, joggers," he said.
Bruns takes time himself to walk through Woodland, usually toting a shovel or a probe, and keeping a sharp eye out for the outline of coffins sometimes visible in the dry summer months when the grass goes dormant.
"I can look around and see lots of things to do, but I also can see just how amazingly beautiful it is in spite of all the work we have to do," he said. "I've been over every inch of this cemetery, I'm pretty sure, so many times, but you still find things or see something that you didn't see before."