Mausoleum of mystery

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Woman laid to rest in McGregor without ever having visited


By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor


Established in 1859, McGregor’s Pleasant Grove Cemetery is the final resting place for countless one-time local residents, including some of the community’s earliest settlers, as well as famed sand artist Andrew Clemens and his family.


In 2010, the cemetery gained a new occupant, Marla Neiman, age 51. Interring a new body was nothing new for the cemetery’s superintendent of maintenance Bob Eggen. Since taking over in 1980, Eggen said he’s buried around 540 people. But Neiman was unique, in a number of ways. Firstly, Neiman was buried with her dog, Sam. She was also laid to rest not in the ground, but in a stately mausoleum, complete with stained glass windows. Lastly, a resident of St. Petersburg, Fla., when she passed, Neiman had never visited McGregor. Her arrival in a casket was her first.


Neiman’s preparations to be buried in McGregor began several years before her death, said Michelle Pettit with the McGregor Public Library, who received a call from Neiman one day inquiring who she should contact.


“I thought it was a joke,” admitted Pettit, who passed Neiman into Eggen’s care.


Eggen, who described Neiman as “quite a character,” said she first contacted him in 2007, asking about what Pleasant Grove was like.


“First, she asked if Andrew Clemens was buried there, and I said, ‘Yes, he’s buried there with his family,’” Eggen recalled.


“She really seemed, to me, to have some romantic notions about Clemens,” Pettit said, noting that Neiman owned one of his sand bottles and wished to be buried with it. Unfortunately, the bottle was never buried with Neiman, and instead turned up in her estate sale.


Once she determined Clemens was buried at Pleasant Grove, Eggen said Neiman asked for more details about the cemetery’s location, as well as how it was managed.


“I said, ‘It’s old, sits atop a bluff overlooking the Mississippi and has 110 trees,’” he continued. “She said, ‘That’s just what I’m looking for.’” 


Eggen also explained to her that it was a community cemetery, not run by a corporation.


In poor health, which Eggen attributed to severe diabetes, Neiman was unable to travel and see the cemetery for herself. He sent her photos from each season along with a map.


“She was very impressed with everything,” he said.


Until her death, Eggen said he had many conversations with Neiman, but gained little insight into her life.


“She had a very pleasant voice and was nice to talk to,” he said. “I’m really upset I didn’t get to meet her.”


Although Eggen never learned much about Neiman, he said she seemed to know a lot about McGregor...and him. On his 80th birthday, while having coffee with friends downtown, Eggen said he was surprised to receive a cake from Neiman.


When Neiman passed away on Oct. 7, 2009, Eggen said he learned of her death from the mausoleum company, which was based in Vermont.


Their last conversation, he said, was about the cemetery’s new chain link fence, put up near where the mausoleum was slated to go in the back left portion. 


“She didn’t think it was fitting,” Eggen said. “She thought it should be ornamental [like that at the entrance].”


Eggen said the mausoleum arrived in two sections on a flatbed semi truck. A company from Prairie du Chien used a large crane to set it in place. Neiman’s body, and that of her dog’s, didn’t arrive until one year later. When the body arrived, Eggen along with his two friends, Shirley and Edith, as well as the hearse driver and a man from the mausoleum company, were the only people in attendance.


“There was no committal service of any kind,” Eggen said. “I didn’t think that was proper, so I did one of my own. I thought she should have a proper send-off.”


In death, Neiman’s life is even more a mystery, which is something she seemed to want, said Pettit. In fact, noted Pettit, Neiman’s death date is even contested. Neiman’s mausoleum states she died Oct. 7, 2009, while online death notices list the date as Oct. 19, 2009.


“She’s very elusive online,” Pettit said, adding that little biographical information can be gleaned. She found Neiman graduated from the Texas Tech University School of Medicine in 1983. In the mid-1990s, she had a medical license in Colorado. No information can be found regarding relatives.


“She claimed she had no close family,” Eggen said, explaining that he was led to believe she was somehow connected to the Neiman Marcus Department Store families. “She was a very private person, but I never questioned it. Now, there are a lot of things I wish I would’ve asked.”


Of his 34 years managing the cemetery, Eggen said his dealings with Neiman were, “without a doubt,” the most unique. “Most [burials] are pretty simple.”


People ask about Neiman and the mausoleum frequently, he said, mentioning that he showed someone the grave and shared the story just two days prior. Whenever he’s at Pleasant Grove, Eggen said Neiman is not far from his mind.


“I say hello to her whenever I go by,” he said.


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