Monday, May 25, 2009

Restoring Glory at Louisville's Eastern Cemetery

Reclaiming cemetery's lost honor
Chris Kenning ~ Courier-Journal ~ 5/25/09 ~ p. A1

Army veteran Walt Oster wades through high grass at Eastern Cemetery in the Highlands, pointing out beer bottles, graffiti, knocked-over headstones and a ratty, dumped couch near veterans' graves.

For months, Oster and a small band of veterans have waged a lonely battle to keep entropy at bay at the neglected graveyard - which has languished ever since its owners walked away after being indicted for, but never convicted of, burying multiple bodies in the same plots.

In the nearly two decades since Eastern was abandoned, its rutted grounds and sagging gravestones - home to soldiers and civilians stretching back before the Civil War - remain a sore spot for local veterans.

"These people need to be honored, not disrespected," said Oster, shaking his head at the manicured graves visible just over a brick wall at Cave Hill Cemetery. "There are people who died for their country."

At Eastern, the men remove trash and paint over graffiti. They place flags, and conduct night missions to confront pot-smokers, vandals and curiosity-seekers who frequent the unkempt cemetery. They've even helped identify cremated remains and displaced headstones.

But it's an uphill fight.

The 60-foot flagpole they proudly installed at the cemetery was recently sawed down for scrap aluminum.

A veteran's headstone turned up in Jeffersontown, covered in ballpoint pen writing and in use as a skateboard ramp. Graffiti is relentless. And the 200 plastic flags they placed on graves in December were all turned upside down within a week.

"There are no owners and most of the relatives of the people here are dead," said Chet Needy, 61, a retired railroad worker and Vietnam veteran. "So there's no one to complain but us."

Part of the problem is that the only money available for Eastern's upkeep is a tiny "perpetual care" fund that barely covers gasoline, mower blades and a supervisor for free prisoner labor to cut the grass every couple of weeks.

And in Kentucky, there is no state law requiring cities or counties to care for abandoned cemeteries.

"It's a problem statewide," said Harold Turner, an assistant state attorney general. "When a cemetery reaches capacity, there's no way to generate further income. So once you run out of volunteers, family members or church groups willing to keep it up, it falls into disrepair."

Infamous history

Although there are hundreds of cases of neglect statewide, few are as infamous as Eastern, which borders Payne Street and Baxter Avenue.

Created as a Methodist burying ground in the 1840s on what was then the city's outskirts, it was one of the few cemeteries where both blacks and whites were buried, albeit in separate areas. Later, veterans from World War I to Vietnam were also buried there.

Then in 1989, its history took a macabre twist.

A gravedigger alleged that old burial lots were routinely reused at Eastern and at Greenwood Cemetery in western Louisville, both owned by Louisville Crematory and Cemeteries Inc.

After a state attorney general's investigation, the company and three of its officers were indicted on 60 criminal charges, including theft, corpse abuse and grave desecration. Many of the gravesites had been resold several times.

In one case, a baby was buried just 10 inches below the surface of a previously occupied grave. In another, a woman was interred with the remains of two others, according to published reports at the time.

In all, about 100,000 people were buried at Eastern, which could hold only 30,000 at most, said Philip Diblasi, a University of Louisville forensic archaeologist who identified remains.

But problems with the evidence led to the charges being dropped, and the owners effectively walked away, Turner said.

A receiver appointed by the court to oversee the cemetery was removed in 2000 amid an attorney general's investigation over improper use of funds. No replacement was named, and volunteers to keep up the cemetery proved difficult to find.

"Who is going to step forward if you have that kind of history?" Turner said.

Resources are slim

As Eastern descended into decrepitude, homeless people moved into the chapel, which was spattered with spray paint and its papers scattered.

At night, the cemetery became a place for teens to drink beer or visit graves, Diblasi said.

Police patrol the area, and Diblasi said he understands they can't be there constantly: "How many resources can you devote to dead people?"

In 2001, unable to pay the city or a landscaper for upkeep, authorities began using the interest from the cemetery's $404,835 care fund to pay Dismas Charities Inc., which runs a halfway house. Prisoners cut the grass at Greenwood, Eastern and Schardein cemeteries, and have improved the grounds and uncovered lost graves.

"If we didn't do this, it couldn't be done, because it takes free labor," said Robert Lanning, director of community corrections for Dismas Charities.

At one point, dozens of headstones for veterans were found in storage; they had never been placed atop their proper gravesites.

Efforts continue

Oster, veteran Dale LeMond and a few others got involved as members of Missing in America, a vets group that seeks to place at military sites veterans' cremated remains that have been left in funeral homes and elsewhere .

They have recently been conducting regular checks at Eastern and are collaborating with a neighborhood association and the city on a June cleanup. They recently removed the dumped sofa and have picked up more beer bottles than they care to recall.

"They patrol at night and ask people what they're doing there," said Terra Long, the legislative assistant for metro councilman Tom Owen. "Since they've adopted it, the vandalism has gone down a little."

Oster, a retired police officer and Vietnam-era veteran, said he "just wants these people to be honored....How that happens, I don't know. But we're not giving up on this place."

There have been halting efforts over the years to improve things. Several Metro Council members, including Owen, have given money to seal the chapel, place no- trespassing signs and paint over graffiti. There have been occasional cleanups.

The General Assembly in the past has considered bills to require some government upkeep, but none have gained support. Matching funds were once set aside in hopes that fundraisers for Eastern would materialize, Turner said.

None did.

Officials say it would take millions of dollars to restore the cemetery -- money that neither the city nor a private group seem to have.

"People say, 'Hey, let's do something.' But what do you do? It'd be a big undertaking to get that to look like a cemetery where you'd want to bury someone," Lanning said.

Reporter Chris Kenning can be reached at (502) 582-4697 or

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