Cemetery, families share monument care responsibility

| November 4, 2010 | 2 Comments

Some “sinking” grave markers at Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul require re-setting; most just need trimming. Melanie Richtman / For The Catholic Spirit

Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul has received more than 200 calls inquiring about sinking grave markers since WCCO’s I-TEAM investigated the phenomenon in early October.

Most callers are not calling because they know a grave marker needs maintenance, but to see if the cemetery could check on the status of their loved one’s marker, said Linda Radtke, the cemetery’s office manager.

In some parts of the cemetery, markers —  stones that lay flush with the ground surface — have sunk as much as four inches into the ground. This affects about 1,000 of the cemetery’s 106,000 graves, said Jon Louris, operations manager at Calvary and St. Mary’s Cemeteries.

Most markers that appear sunken are not. Rather, grass and turf have grown over the markers’ edges due to a robust growing season, said Catholic Cemeteries director John Cherek. In these cases, simple maintenance with a weed trimmer or spade remedies the situation.

During the summer, two to three visitors per week on average reported the issue to the cemetery office, Radtke said. Most of them are visiting the cemetery for the first time.

About 1,000 of the cemetery’s 60,000 to 70,000 markers require more substantial work. The ground around these markers has shifted or settled over the years, and the stones must be reset, which entails removing them from the ground and infilling the spaces under them before they are re-laid.

“It’s a natural phenomenon,” Radtke said. “A marker is typically 120 pounds in a two-foot-square area sitting on dirt. As it gets wet and dry, it sinks. The mower goes over it. And, it depends on the soil conditions in different parts of the cemetery.”

The part of the cemetery that has the most sunken grave markers is a group of single grave sites (as opposed to family plots) on a hill, and most were laid between 1900 and 1920.

Today, the use of grave vaults decreases the likelihood of sinking markers, but vaults were not commonly used until the late 1950s.

Shared responsibility

As an organization, Catholic Cemeteries oversees five Twin Cities Catholic cemeteries. Calvary and St. Mary’s Cemetery in Minneapolis are the oldest.

Employees maintain the grounds and the grave sites within reason, Cherek said. Resetting grave markers is not usually part of regular maintenance, but it could be done during the restoration of an entire section.

Usually families pay for a marker to be reset, which costs about $30. However, Catholic Cemeteries would reset a marker if a family could not afford it, Louris said. Resetting markers is typically done on a case-by-case basis.

Calvary Cemeteries has waived the standard fee for marker resetting for now because it reset the marker belonging to the father of Ali Abdullah, the man featured in the WCCO story, for free.

Families or friends share responsibility for grave site maintenance with the cemetery, Louris said. They purchase the plot. The cemeteries’ staffs maintain the grounds, but additional work on monuments or markers requires the plot-owners’ cooperation.

Cost of maintenance

Although removing overgrowth from markers is part of regular maintenance, the lack of funding prevents restoration needed in some areas. “We simply don’t have the staffing that we used to have,” Cherek said. The current U.S. economy is one factor, and changing cemetery practices is another, he said.

Because of cremation, some people are foregoing cemetery burial or interment, Cherek said. Instead, an increasing number of families are keeping or scattering cremated remains, or burning the remains on their own property.

The Catholic Church discourages these practices, teaching that bodies or cremated remains should be buried or entombed in a cemetery.

Cemetery visits have declined, too, Cherek said. Where visiting a grave site may have been part of a person’s regular routine 100 years ago, it is not often a part of contemporary culture.

Yet, cemeteries are important sacred spaces for Catholics, and their maintenance is important both for the dignity of those buried in them and their families. Even on Nov. 2, All Souls’ Day, Radtke did not expect many additional cemetery visitors.

Catholic Cemeteries is also hoping volunteers will be able to help with maintaining grave sites. It would like to see volunteers spearhead a development fund to pay for additional maintenance, instead of actually doing the demanding physical work. Cherek is aware of other U.S. cemeteries that have developed long-term restoration plans.

Lisa McIntire, 50, visited the cemetery Oct. 16 and helped to pull back overgrown sod from some of Calvary’s markers. She thought her great-great-grandfather’s marker was affected by sinking or overgrowth since she couldn’t find it, but then learned he never had a marker.

The cemetery’s office helped her locate the grave, and she hopes that clearing markers might help other people locate ancestors’ graves. McIntire, who is not Catholic, would like to see more volunteers doing the same, she said.

“I just have this in my value system to do this,” she said.

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