June 12, 2012
Cemetery copes with hardships
Cortland Rural Cemetery turning to the public for help
Sitting in the 90-year-old, newly restored Gibson Chapel, Jim Place, John Hoeschele and Bob Morris talk about the challenges of maintaining a 50-acre, sloping cemetery on a budget that gets tighter every year.
In early May, the grass at Cortland Rural Cemetery was nearly 2 feet high in parts and volunteers on the cemetery board of trustees had to mow it themselves to get it ready for Memorial Day.
“It just breaks my heart to see the cemetery like this,” said city resident Timothy Stramba, who visited the cemetery a few weeks ago and said he was disappointed with what he saw — high grass, toppled monuments, rough roads and graves that were masked by a layer of grass clippings. “This is in the middle of the city. It used to be an immaculate cemetery. You never saw anything like this.”
Lately, Place, Hoeschele, Morris and other members of the Cortland Cemetery board have been bombarded with similar criticism from residents and letters to the editor in the Cortland Standard related to the conditions of the cemetery.
The board members say maintenance has improved and the grass has been cut lower, but more needs to be done to ensure the nearly 19,000 people buried in Cortland Rural Cemetery have the burial site they deserve.
“We need the public’s help,” said Place, the trustees president. “All we can afford is a minimal level of maintenance, which is not going to sit well with people and does not sit well with us.”
Revenues are falling at the cemetery as more and more residents choose to cremate their loved ones and memorialize them outside the cemetery, officials say.
Hoeschele said there were only 31 burials last year, down from 120 or 130 annually in years past.
The budget for the cemetery is about $100,000 a year, he said, but the cemetery only makes about $30,000 from its operations.
The cemetery relies on donations, grants and interest from its permanent maintenance fund and endowment to make up the difference.
The cemetery has nearly $650,000 saved in its permanent maintenance fund but only a small portion of that — about 2 or 3 percent based on interest — can be used for the cemetery’s operation and maintenance according to state law, Place said.
The cemetery is not backed by taxpayer money or support from a religious denomination like other local cemeteries, such as the Glenwood Cemetery in Homer or St. Mary’s Cemetery in the city. Place said that makes it tough to pay the staff needed to maintain the cemetery.
“We can only do what we can do,” Place said. “The reality of the situation is we’re trying to maintain a cemetery on the fraction of the money needed to do it.”
The board members say they can only afford to mow and trim the cemetery once a month when once a week is optimal. The cemetery staff includes two groundskeepers and a half-time office worker who also helps maintain the cemetery.
Andy Palm, the former superintendent of the cemetery, left last year to pursue another career, and the cemetery board could not afford to replace him, Place said.
Members of the cemetery board are asking for the public’s help.
More and more, the cemetery is relying on volunteers to help out. Members of the cemetery’s board of trustees and foundation have had to pick up some of the slack recently, mowing and trimming near headstones, cutting down bushes, raking and doing other manual labor.
Morris even brought his mower from home and used it to mow at the cemetery.
“We’re all doing what we can to help out,” Morris said. “I’m planning on being buried here. Of course, I want it to look well-maintained.”
Last week, Place met with Cortland Mayor Brian Tobin and began talking about finding ways to raise revenue for the cemetery.
Place did not want to go into details about any possible plans but said he would make a presentation to the Common Council in the next few months.
Tobin said he will talk with city attorney Kelly Colasurdo and see what the city can do. He said there are areas such as vehicles and equipment where the city might be able to offer assistance but he was not sure.
“I think many people are disappointed in the state of the cemetery, but I’m also hopeful that people will be able to chip in and help here or there,” Tobin said. “We have to take care of our loved ones.”
The cemetery also is looking to sell some of its unused property and find other ways to raise revenues.
Cemetery officials are asking anyone with time or interest in volunteering to contact them. Place said the cemetery also needs blacktop grindings for cemetery roads, top soil, a backhoe and a vehicle or a golf cart for escorting funerals to grave sites.
Place said the cemetery’s long-term outlook is more promising since cemetery officials have built up its permanent maintenance fund over the last few years.
Cemeteries are required to store money in the fund to guarantee their financial stability. Only interest from the permanent maintenance fund can be spent on annual operations, Place said.
“We’re not giving up,” Place said. “There is a hopeful ending here. It’s not all pessimistic.”
Stramba, a disabled Gulf War veteran, said he wants the cemetery to look like it did years ago. He said he nearly cried when he left the cemetery a few weeks ago.
Stramba says maintaining the cemetery is not just a financial issue — it’s also a moral one.
“Someone needs to do something to turn it around,” he said.
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