Star Magazine

May 24, 2014

Catholic Cemeteries director Bob Chenoweth deals with death daily

Memorial Day preparations keep Bob Chenoweth, a former banker who came out of retirement, busy for Catholic Cemeteries of Northeast Kansas.

Bob Chenoweth of Olathe is executive director of Catholic Cemeteries of Northeast Kansas, cathcemks.org, which operates eight cemeteries. Previously Chenoweth had a 35-year career in the banking industry. This conversation took place on a tour of the grounds and mausoleum at Resurrection Cemetery in Lenexa, which will have a Mass at its veterans memorial on Memorial Day.

Are you ready for Memorial Day?

Oh, yes. We’ve been working on getting the sound systems and tents and everything set up for a while. Memorial Day is the biggest day in the year for cemeteries. Nobody is off on Memorial Day.

What is the oldest cemetery that you manage?

St. John’s Cemetery in Kansas City, Kansas, at 36th Street and State Avenue that was the original Catholic cemetery for Kansas City, Kansas. At the time it opened around 1850 it was outside the city limits. We just had a burial in there a few weeks ago. We hadn’t had a burial there for two years because the people going in there are generally very old, and they are the last people going into a family plot.

What do people not realize about death and funerals?

People probably don’t realize how many babies die. That was a big surprise to me. We think we have great medicine today, but if you read the obituaries every day you’ll see a lot of infants die. We have a section called Infant of Prague that is just for babies.

You had been retired for five years when the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas asked you to take over running its cemeteries. What appealed to you about the job?

I might not have been one to retire. I’d go to meetings and people would say, “What do you do?” I would say, “I’m retired,” and I felt like an outcast.

How does this job compare with banking?

It’s great to be out of the rat race. I just want to do a good job.

A lot of people’s concept of cemeteries is that we dig holes, put caskets in, fill up the hole and that’s it. This is a multimillion dollar operation annually. There’s a lot going on. There’s mowing, fertilizing, trimming trees, building new memorials and monuments, opening new sections, dealing with the cities to construct new mausoleums, borrowing the money, overseeing the construction. There’s a lot going on all the time. I learn something new every single day.

Can you give an example of something you learned recently?

I’d prefer not to.

Why?

The things you learn about cemeteries are sometimes not really pretty (laughs).

How about one story with a useful lesson?

We had a service here where instead of a balloon release at the end, which is popular, the family released two white doves. Well, we have a hawk that lives in the cemetery, and he swooped down and nailed one of the doves. The other one got away, but the family was very upset.

If they had asked us, we could have told them balloons are a better idea. We have a lot of wild critters here. That is one thing that makes it beautiful — the flora and fauna.

Reach Cindy Hoedel at choedel@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and the Star’s ChowTown food blog.

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