JACKSON – Marylee Elizabeth Burke was killed by a drunk driver in 1979. The tragic event left her family shocked and saddened. Her family came together recently to remember her and to gain some further closure.
The teenager was buried in a historic township cemetery and after four decades, a short ceremony was held to unveil a grave marker at the Whitesville Cemetery once known as the old Whitesville Methodist Cemetery, founded in 1800.
Retired Lakewood Police officer Rodney Youmans never forgot about the tragic death of Marylee Elizabeth Burke. It bothered him that nothing was ever done on the young woman’s behalf.
He was instrumental in getting the grave marker placed. He reached out to members of her family concerning the unmarked grave and to raise money to have a headstone erected. This undertaking also led him to explore the mystery of the cemetery’s history as well.
He told The Jackson Times, “This was a peculiar story. Many years have passed after Marylee was killed. I never knew her. She was seven years older than me but I have been going to this cemetery since I was a little boy and I didn’t remember anything.
“My mother made frequent trips to this cemetery as I had a sister who was born before me and she passed the day she was born,” Youmans added.
He said he has three generations of his family buried in the historic cemetery that features tombstones that go back to the 1800s, some so old that the writing on them is illegible. Other grave markers have toppled completely over time.
“Her mother and father were there at the ceremony. I met them for the first time. I was communicating with a cousin of Marylee’s, Maureen Grover. There are several Grovers buried in that cemetery too. She is a descendant of all the Grovers. They were there along with several members of the Jackson PD because their PBA had contributed toward the stone as well as my PBA,” Youmans said.
He said, “sadly during the time of the incident back in ‘79 Jackson and Lakewood police helped catch the driver who killed her. She was struck by a car and pronounced dead at the hospital. She was 16 years old at the time.”
“There was a metal marker there for the longest time and about a year or so ago that marker had gotten chopped up by a lawn mower (in the graveyard). I knew I had to do something. I’ve been meaning to do something for a long time. There was a little plot next to my family and there were never any gravestones there just wooden crosses. Someone had been visiting them over the years and placed flowers there but the caretakers of the cemetery inadvertently chopped them up.”
Youmans added, “many graves there were lost to time and we’ll probably never find the records. To this day those records have been lost from what has been explained to me.”
He said the Whiteville Methodist Church is now the African Methodist Episcopalian Church. He’s waiting to hear from the current owners if they have any records from the cemetery.
“There was one lady, Mrs. Payne, who attended the ceremony who is in her 80s who has lived in Whitesville her whole life,” he said.
“I think her mother and some of the other older ladies of the time were on a church board and I think they raised funds for it in the 1960s, and 70s. They may have been the ones who installed a fence there. There is a Sears sign there and Sears did install fences at the time,” he added.
Youmans said, “I’m presuming a board member might have had the records. If they had passed, a family member who was cleaning out things may have thrown the records away. Anything is possible. I don’t know if there are people buried there whose stones have been lost, bleached and destroyed. Trees have come down over the years and toppled some and there was vandalism in the 70s from what I heard.
“The Jackson Kiwanis Club cut the grass there once in recent years and once my landlord and I cut it. I reached out to what I believe is the Greater Methodist Conference of New Jersey and a woman there said they had contracted people to come out to do the lawn. I think they were also talking about having some trees removed because there are some dead trees on the property.”
Youmans retired from the Lakewood Police Department at the end of 2022 and he and his wife moved to Florida. He said prior to his move that “it has been uplifting because the cemetery hasn’t looked this good in years because when the church went defunct there were no more funerals held there.”
“I think my mother was probably the last funeral in 2015. The funds had obviously run out over the years. It has been cut three times this year (2022) and someone did the leaves in the fall,” he added.