Cemeteries in ruins

Cemeteries in ruins

Posted by: Melissa McKinney - bio | email

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Before we die, we spend thousands of dollars on gravestones and burial plots expecting our last mark on the world to last forever.

We hope our final resting place is peaceful and pleasant to the eye.

But for many in Alabama, they get the complete opposite.

Of the 27,000 cemeteries in the state, more than 13,000 of them are in disrepair--including one right in the heart of Montgomery.

Even with occasional clean-ups from city workers, Lincoln Cemetery faces the same plight as thousands of others; trash, brush, and broken graves.

And that mess could one day happen at your resting place.

All because there's no state law or agency in charge of mandating cemetery clean-up.

"It's up to basically the property owner...or up to the people who have ancestors who are buried in that cemetery," says Frank Brown.

Brown is the president of the Alabama Cemetery Preservation Alliance--a group trying to tackle the problem.

He doesn't expect the state to take over.

"It would take a tremendous sum of money...I mean, a tremendous sum."

That means the burden lies on folks like Ruth Ott.

She has family buried in Oakwood Annex Cemetery in Montgomery.

Right now, it looks spic and span, but it hasn't always been this way.

"The weeds were up about as high as your knee, and there was all kinds of trash."

It prompted one reaction.

"It would make me cry and it would make me a little angry that we came to this," says Ott.

Ruth fears Oakwood Annex, where you'll find not only her family, but even the famous Hank Williams' grave could eventually end up covered up--much like one Billie Thrash is trying to restore.

"Up to a few years ago, I didn't care about these old abandoned cemeteries," he says.

That all changed when he found his family's graves deep in the woods of Elmore County and hidden from the public eye.

"If you notice the only thing that's identifiable about this is that little headstone up there that has an H.J.T on it...which was my great-grandfather."

It only takes one grave to make a cemetery. But whether it's one or hundreds, preservationists say they all deserve respect...respect many aren't getting.

"It's a pity that these cemeteries get in this type of condition where nobody seems to care," says Thrash.

But people like Sherry Johnston do care.

"You can go anywhere in the state of Alabama, and walk right beside a cemetery and never know it's there," she says.

In her words, she's a cemetery junkie but it's the junk she's trying to get rid of before it's too late.

"If I'm laying here buried I'd want somebody looking after me and taking care of me even though I'm no longer in the world."

But she and others are getting noticed.

Frank Brown says with the help of newspaper articles and attention like this, "I can see the interest that it stirs up. New members coming in and more people volunteering to help."

More people making preservation a priority one grave at a time.

"We're making a difference.  We got a long ways to go, but we're making a difference," says Brown.

"Everybody deserves to be remembered...and the way to do that is for us to take care of those that are buried in the cemetery," adds Johnston.

Preservationists are working with state legislators to increase cemetery laws.

In 2007, two were passed.  One gives family members access to those on private land.

Another made stronger penalties on cemetery vandalism.

There is already work for next session on two bills to protect cemeteries from being destroyed by private developers.

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