BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Concordia Cemetery has survived vandalism, financial turmoil, and abandonment.
But somehow, some way, the historic final resting place manages to muscle through one challenge after another.
The non-profit, all volunteer cemetery has quite the story.
In fact, volunteers will tell you that every stone and monument have a story to tell.
“Didn’t have to be rich. You still had a story in your life to tell,” said Bonnie Fleischauer, public information officer for Concordia.
Formed in 1859 — the term “concordia” means harmony — a reference to three churches, St. Stephen’s Evangelical, St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran, and First Trinity Lutheran, coming together to share the burial ground.
In the early days, the German influence in Buffalo was substantial with 60 percent of the population German at one time.
In the years that followed, Concordia Cemetery, one of the oldest in the area, transitioned to reflect the Queen City’s rich diversity.
“Now there’s every culture, every ethnicity buried here. Every religion,” said Fleischauer.
Across the 15 acres of land — tucked away on Buffalo’s East Side — is a snapshot in time where the past helps define the beginnings of a proud community.
There are roughly 20,000 people buried at the Walden Avenue cemetery. Although, you wouldn’t know that judging by the number of tombstones.
“As you can see when you look around it looks relatively empty. It looks like we have a lot of space left to sell, but we don’t,” said David Speth, president of Concordia Cemetery.
“They had to buy food for the living. They couldn’t afford to buy stones for the dead,” he added.
Concordia is the final resting place for over 500 war veterans, including many who fought in the Civil War.
More than a dozen were members of the Buffalo-based Weidrich’s Battery, credited with thwarting Confederate advances at Gettysburg in 1863.
“They were famous for taking on the Louisiana Tigers, which was a much-feared southern group. They met them in battle not once but twice. The second time at Gettysburg,” Fleischauer explained.
“But they did turn back the Louisiana Tigers, and it was a fierce hand-to-hand battle.”
Diane Savatteri, president of the Concordia Foundation, remembers running through the cemetery as a child and playing with her brother during family visits.
“It’s a connection, and this is what Concordia does,” she said.
Savatteri sees her role, and that of other volunteers, as preserving the past and telling the story of Buffalo’s beginning.
“It gives us that power to say we can, we must speak up. We must make sure that we never lose what we have gained through the years. And that’s the stories here,” Savatteri said.
Stories that include a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, a Civil War veteran who lost his arm in the Second Battle of Bull Run, and one of the oldest persons in the world at the time of her death.
One of the most notable and talked about sites in the cemetery is the Schmand family stone, which “wishes” a curse on the person who killed a 17- year old family member in 1877.
“Our translator said it was written by a woman. So, we assume it’s his mother who was just angry beyond belief,” Fleischauer explained.
While moved from their original location, a pre-Civil War farmhouse and barn are still on the premises.
So, it’s no wonder Concordia Cemetery has both state and national historic designation.
But the road from what was once farmland to burial ground has been quite the odyssey.
“Not that long ago, about 20 years ago when it was a working cemetery, the treasurer absconded with over $154,000 and that pretty much bankrupted it,” Bonnie Fleischauer, the cemetery’s spokesperson, recalled.
She says the board quit and left the place with no caretaker.
“If you came here during that time the grass would be waist high. If you were trying to find a headstone you just couldn’t,” she said.
But just when the cemetery was facing its darkest hour, brighter days were on the horizon thanks to an army of grassroots volunteers that decided to step up and take charge.
David Speth, the cemetery president, remembers there being challenges decades ago when he would visit with family.
“For years, my grandmother took me to the wrong gravestone in the back because it was all worn, and she couldn’t read it. And she said ‘this is your great, great grandfather,’and it wasn’t. My great, great grandfather was several yards away. It was another relative with the same last name,” Speth recalled.
Concordia’s transformation continues even today, 161 years after it was established.
And while there aren’t many burials anymore with only a few dozen graves left to sell, there’s plenty of work to be done.
For one, keeping the grass trimmed is a fulltime job, requiring volunteers and equipment.
Thomas and Kathleen Parrish, who grew up in Buffalo, recently visited Concordia after seeing a News 4 story about hungry goats being used to trim the cemetery’s grass.
“I remembered as a kid my mother bringing me down to be with my grandfather’s grave. I never realized this is where it was that she brought me. So, I came down to try to find him,” he said.
Volunteers say it’s that sort of connection that makes Concordia so special, and worth the fight to keep the stories of each stone, each life lived, relevant for generations to come.
Diane Savatteri, the cemetery foundation’s president, put it this way:
“This is Buffalo, and without it… if we lose any more of these stories, we don’t know who we were and how we got to where we are,” she said.
Volunteers are needed on the National Day of Service, Friday September 11th, from 9 am – 4 pm, and the following day from 9 am – 1 pm to help take care of the grounds.
If interested, volunteers can send an email to email@example.com.
There’s also a membership/volunteer form on the website, ConcordiaBuffalo.org.
To learn more about the cemetery’s history and stories, you can follow Concordia on Facebook at Friends of Concordia Cemetery.