This grave marker, near the entrance on the west side of Lake View Cemetery, on the north end of Pelican Rapids, may be among the local victims of the 1918-1919 global flu epidemic.
We haven’t had the opportunity to confirm further, but the age of the woman and the month-year are a strong indicator.

Clues to impact of 1918-1919 global flu epidemic are on the gravestones; plus observations of the current pandemic

By Steve J. Foster, Guest Contributor 

I have one hobby that doesn’t cost any money. 

I visit graveyards and look for victims of the flu epidemic of 1918. They can be identified by specific dates and age groups. If I can find those specific dates and age groups, it is very likely that person was a victim of the flu. Sometimes it is carved on the headstone, ‘victim of the Spanish flu’ or something like that but mostly it is dates and ages.

You might be wondering why and how I got interested in that. One of my grandfathers mentioned that he did not expect to live through it as many of his neighbors died during that time. I was young and dumb and didn’t ask questions and to this day, I regret that. All my grandparents lived through the flu of 1918 and only the one grandfather ever mentioned it. They were all in their late teens or twenties in the fall of 1918 and the spring of 1919 and that was one of the prime age groups which was affected by the flu. At least two of my grandparents were in areas that were hard hit by that epidemic.

Later when I was older and more curious about the world, I read a couple of books about it. The flu epidemic of 1918 was unique in that it struck down people in the prime of their lives. People in their late teens, twenties, thirties, and forties. The average life span dropped by 10 years because so many younger people died. Many of the very young and old survived it. The very young and old are often two groups that don’t survive the flu but that wasn’t the case in 1918. 

“Spanish” Flu victims in some regions were buried in mass graves 

I chatted with the caretaker was at one of the cemeteries. She told me that the flu victims were buried in a mass grave and showed me where that was. This town was maybe twice the size of Pelican Rapids. Most of the graves that I have found that fit the ages and dates of October 1918 to March of 1919 have been in very small towns or country church graveyards. Sometimes it was a soldier that died in a training camp and then was shipped back to his hometown to be buried. 

Another thing about the flu of 1918, it was extremely contagious. It only took several months for it to reach every corner of the populated world. World War I was going on and there were many bases throughout the US. Camp Sherman in Ohio had over 13,000 cases of the flu from Sept. 27th to Oct. 13 and 1,101 died. 

Philadelphia lost 11,000 within a month. 

1918-1919 flu epidemic killed 675,000 in U.S.; as many as 30 million globally 

It killed between 2.5 and 3 percent of the people that developed symptoms. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is estimated that in the United States it killed 675,000 and 10 to 30 million worldwide. At that time, there was no testing and very little record keeping so all statistics are just estimates. One result of the epidemic of 1918 is that now health services track and record diseases and mortality rates. 

As a comparison, if COVID had the same mortality, there would be over 2 million deaths in the United States as there is 3 times the population as there was in 1918. 

Reflections on current pandemic This brings us to COVID. 

I have been following this on the Minnesota Health Dept. Situation update site for almost a year. I chose Minnesota’s because one, I live here; and two, I think Minnesota is doing an honest job of reporting. At first, I was very skeptical of their reporting. The Minnesota state website is updated daily, even on weekends. Other states I looked at did not do this. There were 140 unreported deaths a few weeks ago. This was corrected and all data adjusted with an explanation which increased my confidence in their reporting. 

The data is broken down by location, age, sex, race, type of residency and several other factors. If you go to the website, there is a lot of information and every graph has additional information with the dropdown arrows that are below the table. There is a list of other reports at the end of the update that one can look at. I decided to track it by death rates and age groups because there was too much information to follow. It was broken down by 11 age groups in ten-year increments. After a couple of months, the Dept. of Health changed this to five-year increments or 21 age groups for reasons I do not know. I kept the original age groups as it was simpler and easier to follow.

One thing that is missing is the underlying conditions. Minnesota does not report on this. Some of the other states do but they do not report consistently. Heart disease, obesity, chronic lung diseases, or diabetes are the four conditions that are most often in patients that are hospitalized or pass away.

So, a couple of questions for you:

• How many school age children have died of covid?

• What is the average age of a person in MN that dies of covid?

• What is the average age of a person in MN that dies?

• What are your chances of living to 100?

There have been 2 school age children that died of covid, which does not seem to affect school age children very much. The other states have similar data.

The next logical thing is to look at how COVID affects their parents. We can’t look at the parents specifically, but we can look at the age group the parents would fall into. This is going to be 20-50 year-olds which breaks into three age groups. There have been 11 deaths in the 20-29 age group. There were 47 deaths in 30-39 age group and 116 in 40-49 year-olds. These are not big numbers, but these three age groups have half of confirmed positives for COVID in Minnesota or 300,000.

This got me curious about where COVID sits in the whole scheme of things and so I looked at the vital statistics. This report is also on the Dept. of Health website. The last one completed was 2019. Here it gets a little complicated as Minnesota divides by 5 and 15 year increments. The 20-49 year-olds are broken into 2 groups, 20 to 34 and 35 to 49. 

COVID deaths for younger people outnumbered by drug overdoses, suicides

In the 20-34 age group there were six major causes of death. The causes were motor vehicle accidents (86), heart disease (47), cancer (74), suicide (198), accidental poisoning (drug overdoses) (336), and homicide (68). Each of these causes alone killed more than covid (29). 

The next group of potential parents, 35-49 years was similar. Cancer (339), accidental poisoning (202), heart disease (239), and suicide (196) each killed more than covid has. Cirrhosis of the liver (110) has a similar number to covid (145).

There have been 7,283 covid deaths in Minnesota at the time of this writing. Slightly more than 93 percent of those deaths have occurred with people 60 and older. Sixty-one percent of the deaths are with people 80 and older. That correlates with many other states. Again, there is nothing on underlying conditions and older people have more underlying conditions. 

It is quite an accomplishment to live to 100. Try as one might, eating healthy, exercising, not smoking, etc, there are still many other things beyond one’s control that decide if one lives to 100 or not. The chances that a person lives this long are slightly less than 2 in 10,000. 

The average age of a person that dies in Minnesota is 79. The average age of a person in Minnesota that dies of covid is 83. 

You can decide for yourself what that means, but that is interesting.

I am not telling anyone how to think about this nor is my ego such that I am going to change anyone’s mind. Facts are good things to have and facts seem to be absent in much of the media. 

 If there is a point to all this, it is none of us will live forever and the chances are very slim that any live to 100. If you are curious or disagree with me, you can look for yourself. 

Here is the website address:

Editor’s note: Steve J. Foster submitted this article, inspired by his historic curiosity about the 1918 “Spanish” Flu Epidemic, and the record of those deaths in cemeteries.
He draws observations relative to the current COVID pandemic.
Foster is a Pelican Rapids City Council member, a member of the Pelican Area Rotary Club.