(WASHINGTON) - For nearly a century and a half, Daviess County folks have been laid to rest in Oak Grove Cemetery at the west edge of Washington, but in recent years maintenance of the 23-acre property has declined and people are no longer wanting to bury family members there.
"You can't see the plaques on the ground because they're covered with grass," said Carol Purdue, who has several family members buried at Oak Grove.
Andrea McCann of the Washington Times-Herald reports Purdue was concerned about putting flags on military graves for Memorial Day.
"It makes me so upset," she continued. "They don't deserve it. It just makes me sick.
"You can hardly see some tombstones. There are tree limbs down in a pile, and when they do mow, they just mow around it."
Purdue said she used to load up a mower and weed trimmer and maintain her family's gravesites herself, but she just can't do it anymore.
Last year, Guy Barker and Emma McBride made a deal to buy the cemetery from Rick and Jeff Mattingly on contract and take responsibility for it because they buried their young son there and hated seeing the condition of his gravesite. However, the endeavor has been daunting and eye-opening for the couple.
"I did it out of my heart," Barker said. "I didn't think about the business end of it. I did not have a clue there were all these problems. I just knew the guy who had it didn't want it."
Oak Grove Cemetery was registered by Mattinglys in 2008 and remains registered in their name, according to Tracy Hicks, director of the State Board of Funeral and Cemetery Service.
There's no longer a perpetual care fund for upkeep at Oak Grove, and reportedly hasn't been for some time. According to Hicks, when someone buys a cemetery, they're expected to do their due diligence and make sure there's a $100,000 perpetual care fund in place.
However, when an owner is unable to maintain a cemetery or the perpetual care fund is depleted, there is a consumer protection fund for cemetery maintenance.
"Maintenance assistance is available," Hicks said. "It doesn't take a court order, but it is a process."
The funeral and cemetery board has a compliance division, but Hicks said a complaint must have been filed through the Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General's Office before an inspection will be made.
In addition, she said there are only three individuals covering all of Indiana, so it can take some time.
Barker said he simply doesn't have adequate equipment to handle all the maintenance needs and is doing everything he can to make do with what he's got. He was planning to sell his vehicles, and he moved his parents and their horses across from the cemetery with him to conserve money.
"Right now the cemetery has a donated mower, and it keeps breaking down," Barker said. "It's expensive to fix, so we're weed-eating and doing what we can.
"Mowing around 12,000 headstones, a mower just doesn't hold up."
He said he needs two mowers, six weed trimmers and a backhoe. Barker said he can pay workers, but he can't handle equipment expenses on top of his monthly payment and other expenses.
Barker has to rent a backhoe to dig graves, and he said he gets a good deal on that, but it would be more convenient - and eventually more economical - to have one on hand at the cemetery. He can't lay the foundations for the headstones, so Eaton Monument will be doing that.
"I want to do everything out here, but there's no equipment," he said. "That's all I wanted in this world, was to take care of the place where my son is laid to rest."
While the expense of caring for the cemetery is high, income is currently low, making it hard for Barker to get ahead.
"Right now all I'm getting is money for burials," he said, adding that some are prepaid, and when one prepaid burial occurred recently, Rick Mattingly couldn't locate the money for it, so Barker paid for it.
Julie Graham, who resides in Louisiana but has family buried at Oak Grove, started Friends of Oak Grove Cemetery with some family members in 2009 when her father died and was buried there. She said the condition of the cemetery was "unsatisfactory" at that time.
"It's privately owned, so we couldn't set up a fund," she explained. "We set up a nonprofit to accept funds through the (Daviess County) Community Foundation. The goal is to raise funds and help Mr. Barker take care of it. The cemetery does not bring in enough money to support itself."
She said the foundation fund gives people a safe place to donate money for the care of their loved ones' graves. A three-member board maintains control of the money in the fund.
Friends of Oak Grove Cemetery also was designed to organize clean-up days and gather community support. A clean-up day scheduled a couple weekends ago, though, fell flat.
Graham said some products were donated, and Barker said a couple of men trimmed weeds and another sprayed weed killer. He said a few people cleaned only around their family plots.
Graham had hoped the clean-up day would be a spark to help things move forward in a positive light.
"There are lots of negative and bad feelings," she said. "I would ask for patience and for people to be positive and try to focus on the future. I do believe there are better days ahead for this cemetery. It's just going to take time. We've just got to have faith and keep pushing forward."
"The thing is, there are just no options. Nobody is willing to take responsibility for it. The only one has been Guy Barker. He needs more equipment and staff, but needs money for it."
Barker hopes people will bear with him until he can get some equipment.
"My mower is down and I don't know what to do about it right at this moment," he said. "My promise still stands. I want to turn this place into a Garden of Eden. It's been run down for 20 years. Give me a couple years to get it taken care of."
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