Cemetery’s disrepair adds to families’ grief

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 12, 2010

Since Esther Franklin died Nov. 25 at the age of 95, Raymond King has made regular visits to Cedar Hill Cemetery to place flowers on the grave of his beloved friend and former neighbor, whom he considered family.

Each time King visits, he finds the same thing: Franklin’s headstone lying in three pieces in a pile of dirt next to her grave.

“It breaks my heart,” said King, a Vicksburg native who now lives in Clinton, on a recent visit. “This woman was like a mother to me, and I was like a son to her. She was just a wonderful, caring person — she would give the clothes off her back for anyone — and she deserves better than this.”

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Cedar Hill Cemetery

• Created in 1873, it is the public cemetery for Vicksburg.

• Spread over about 200 acres, a 10-acre expansion has been ongoing since 2008.

• Beginning in 1995, a perpetual care payment has been included in the cost of all plots.

• Grass cutting has been contracted out since 1995.

• City crews open and close graves for a fee, and maintain cemetery roads and remove debris.

• Tombstone sellers are responsible for placing stones.

• Plot owners or their family members are responsible for maintenance of tombstones.

• The city’s cemetery budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 is $384,300. 

Maintenance and repair requests at the 137-year-old, city-operated cemetery are a constant, said Sexton Venable Moore, who has overseen Cedar Hill operations for 20 years. Tombstones are routinely found slightly moved or entirely tipped over, often due to being bumped by mowers.

That injects another layer of confusion over who is responsible. City staff formerly cut the grass, but that job has been contracted out by City Hall since 1995 due to reports city crews were not mowing often enough.

“It’s every day. That’s a big part of my job,” said Moore of the complaints, almost all of them from upset family members of the deceaseds. “We try to deal with all of them as best we can, but sometimes there’s really nothing we can do.”

• The city sells single or multigrave plots with the price including a perpetual care fee.

• Tombstone sellers are responsible for properly erecting stones and family members are responsible for stone maintenance.

• Mowers and city crews have limited responsibility for stones.

“A lot of people think perpetual care covers markers and headstones,” Moore said, “but they’re private property, and we could actually be held liable if we tried to move them and they were damaged.”

The perpetual care fee has been included in the cost of lots since 1995. Before that, the lots were sold for a low price and families were billed an annual fee. That system was unworkable.

Today, lot costs start at $240 for a single and go up to about $1,500 for a family lot with enough space for 18 burials. However, there’s little city maintenance included in the perpetual care cost beyond maintenance of cemetery roadways and daily clearing of discarded flowers and other debris.

If a contracted grass cutter moves or damages a headstone, Moore said the company is responsible and must pay to fix the problem via their required insurance. If a headstone is sinking due to a poor foundation — a common sight in the cemetery — it’s either the responsibility of the company that placed it or that of the deceased’s family members.

In a cemetery where graves date back to the 1840s, however, many graves are left in neglect because there are no immediate family members of the deceased in the area to care for them.

“That’s why you see a lot of headstones lying around out there,” said Moore.

In 2001, the city established a three-member committee to oversee the cemetery, which was established 12 years after the city. But the committee dissolved shortly after being put together when founding member Fred Nosser moved from Vicksburg and remaining members discovered the liability issues surrounding headstones.

“We really couldn’t function, because there was nothing we could do. All of the graves are private property,” said Shirley Roesch, one of the committee members.

In Natchez, the city cemetery faces similar issues when it comes to maintenance. The cemetery — which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, dates to 1882 and encompasses 100 acres — began selling perpetual care lots about 20 years ago that do not include maintenance of private headstones.

However, The Friends of the Natchez City Cemetery group, established in 1907, helps maintain the cemetery despite private property liability issues. Along with contributions, the 19-member group holds a cemetery tour fundraiser that brings in about $20,000 each year to help maintain private graves and fences the city crews won’t touch, said board member and past president Nancy Kimbrell.

“We have graves that go back to the late 1700s. When a brick wall or a grave begins to crumble, it’s up to the family to repair it. We work with families to make those repairs if they are in the area, but many of these graves are so old there is no family,” Kimbrell said. “In that case, we go in and do what needs to be done. Liability wise, we really have not had too much trouble, because the community is very, very supportive.”

In an attempt to ease some liability issues, the City of Vicksburg in 2006 began leasing cemetery lots rather than selling them outright. Moore said the change has given the city some added authority over maintenance of private lots; however, he noted the city does not have the equipment necessary to move gravestones safely.

King said his mother, father and other relatives are all buried at Cedar Hill, and to this point he’s never had a major issue with maintenance at the cemetery. He has gone to the city several times to try to get Franklin’s headstone re-erected, but he is still waiting for a final resolution. He said the headstone — which Franklin had purchased and had placed next to her late husband’s — toppled into the grave as it was being dug by city crews.

As of this morning, King said someone with the city had pieced the gravestone back together. However, he said it needs to be permanently set once again, but doesn’t think the city will do it.

“It’s a temporary fix, and it sounds like that’s all they plan to do,” he said. “If I have to pay to have someone come out here and fix this, I will, because this is ridiculous. It’s been almost five months since she died, and I just want to see her rest in peace.”

Contact Steve Sanoski at ssanoski@vicksburgpost.com