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Frank Gray

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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Tree limbs trimmed from a dying ash tree are piled up over graves in the South Park Annex cemetery in Whitley County.

Heavy lifting in cemetery care

It was just a few days before Veterans Day when Janet Knispel of Kosciusko County decided to visit her parents’ graves at the South Park Annex cemetery in Whitley County.

What she found, she said, was a cemetery that looked like a tornado had gone through it. There were tree limbs on the ground, including some on her parents’ graves, and trees down.

Knispel contacted the county commissioners in Whitley County about the issue, but she was told it wasn’t their responsibility. Knispel was flabbergasted. Call the township trustee, she was told, but she said the number she was given was disconnected.

The day after her complaints, nothing had been done at the cemetery. Veterans Day was approaching, and her father was a veteran, she said in a phone call to the newspaper Friday. Something had to be done.

You can’t blame Knispel for being upset. It’s true, old cemeteries get overgrown and run down, but her parents had been buried in the cemetery only in the last five years or so.

But there was some confusion about who was responsible for the cemetery. According to a Whitley County Genealogy Society website, that particular cemetery was privately owned, but exactly who owned it wasn’t clear.

So I called Mike Myers, the Columbia Township trustee, to ask whether he knew who was in charge of the cemetery.

Well, Myers said, the annex was a family-owned cemetery, but a few years ago the business plan fell apart and it was turned over to the township, so the responsibility for maintenance falls to him.

A couple of weeks before Knispel’s visit, he had hired a contractor to cut down some ash trees and trim limbs off one huge, dying ash that was near the edge of the cemetery and surrounded by graves. The contractor removed some limbs that were up to two feet in diameter. The work, he said, was interrupted by about five days of rain.

To save money, Myers said, the contractor left the logs on the ground, and individuals could show up and cut up the logs and haul them away for firewood themselves, which has been happening.

There is still work to be done, but the big job is to hire a contractor with a crane to cut down one remaining tree, a monstrous one with a trunk five feet in diameter. A crane is needed because there is no other way to control where a tree that big will fall. Regarding the limbs on Knipsel’s parents’ graves, it was just a case of bad timing.

Myers, who is a farmer, said he knew when he ran for trustee that maintaining cemeteries was part of the job, but he figured cutting grass couldn’t be that complicated. He said he never knew what a headache it would be. He oversees 35 acres of cemeteries, and it takes a lot of time to mow those 35 acres. His annual budget for that is $50,000.

Myers hires high school and college students to do the mowing, but when it comes to trees, he has to hire contractors with heavy equipment.

He said he’s on a list with contractors, but tree trimmers are busy, and no one is anxious to do work in a cemetery because they have to work around all the gravestones.

There are other issues. People put plastic flowers on some graves, but when high winds kick up, the artificial flowers blow all over the grounds. No one has any idea where the flowers were. No one puts names on the little bouquets, so Myers has to pick them all up and discard them.

“You could go out there any day after a windy day and find something to complain about,” Myers said. It’s just the nature of the job.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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