Ken Johnson lights a candle for a pumpkin that will go on display at the Pinecrest Cemetery in Oscoda.

OSCODA – Hundreds of volunteers again worked over several days to turn the Oscoda Pinecrest Cemetery into a jack-o-lantern cemetery for one night in an annual tradition started by the Beckner family.

The cemetery was decorated this year on Wednesday night with more than 500 jack-o-lanterns that were carved by volunteers over the course of three days.

Organizer Jim Beckner said that Wayne Nedo, a farmer and owner of Nedo’s Market in Mikado, donated the gourds for this year’s event.

After the gourds were carved they were placed on the graves of loved ones in the cemetery, lit with a votive candle, and then the public was allowed to travel by car or on foot through the cemetery at night to see the spectacle of lights.

Beckner started the tradition in 1990 after the death of his stepson, Aaron Sabin, who passed away the previous year. He said that year Christmas was particularly hard, so the family focused on Halloween as a celebration. 

He said the tradition began with just placing one pumpkin on Aaron’s grave site, but soon spread to other family member’s grave sites.

“And then from there it just started steamrolling,” Beckner said.

Soon there were dozens of residents with family members in the cemetery who felt the need to honor their deceased loved ones with a lit pumpkin. Beckner said now every year they will come to the volunteer carving event, carve a pumpkin, and then place it on their loved ones cemetery plot for the event.

Volunteers then light candles before it gets dark. Beckner said they used a system of putting the votive candle in a small plastic cup, then placing that in a larger plastic cup, to assure that the candle will not get blown out by gusts of air. He said the votive candles stay lit for around 10 hours.

Most of the pumpkins are placed by a dedicated group of volunteers. The pumpkins only remain for a day or two, and then the cemetery is cleaned. Beckner, who works for the Oscoda Township Department of Public Works, is also a cemetery caretaker and said pumpkins are not just placed randomly. He said they are often placed on graves that people have been paying attention to.

“I take the flowers off every grave in the fall,” he said. “So if there is a flower on that grave, it’s because someone loves that person.”

Volunteer Ken Johnson said that the public generally is very thankful for the efforts of the volunteers for the event. He told a story of a woman who was curious about who had been putting a jack-o-lantern on her family member’s grave.

“She came up and she had always wondered who put pumpkins on their (loved ones’) graves,” Johnson said. “She says ‘Oh, I love you, I just wanted to thank you for what you’re doing.’”

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