Who will watch over Green Lawn?
By Hugh Fisherhfisher@salisburypost.com
CHINA GROVE ó The graves of hundreds at the Green Lawn private cemetery are quiet on winter mornings, save for the traffic on Main Street and the roar of the trains when they pass.
But the open grass and the cedar trees that mark a thousand graves, old and new, may soon be marred by weeds and brush, if new arrangements aren’t made for the cemetery’s care.
After decades of management by a board of citizens set up for the purpose, money that purchasers of those plots paid has run out.
“We did the best we could,” said Ed Shinn, who has been treasurer of that board since its inception, almost 50 years ago.
The poor economy, coupled with a lack of new investment, has been the undoing of the perpetual care the cemetery’s trustees had hoped to provide.
“About five years ago, we knew we weren’t going to be able to operate on 2 percent interest or 1 percent, or whatever we could get,” he said.
The board decided to use the remaining funds to continue providing care as long as possible.
Tony Jenkins, owner of China Grove Auto Parts, currently has the contract to provide lawn care and clean-up.
Jenkins said that the cost of maintaining the cemetery was about $9,000 a year.
This month, he put up a banner at the cemetery to notify passersby on Main Street that that care would end on Dec. 31.
His store’s phone number is on the banner, and he’s helping put the word out.
“I’m going to have a meeting after the first of the year, and we’ll see what people want to do,” Jenkins said.
He’s willing to continue providing maintenance if funds can be raised.
Yet, while many of the graves show clear signs that relatives still visit, it’s possible that people outside China Grove won’t know that care will cease.
“We are going to run an ad the last five days of the year … and hopefully some of them will see it,” Shinn said.
The private cemetery is only a portion of the land on both sides of Main Street where local families are laid to rest.
Going south from downtown China Grove on Main Street, the private cemetery is the first section on the left side of the street.
It’s recognizable because it still has trees and shrubbery, which were removed from other parts of the burial ground years ago.
The upper sections on the left are owned by three China Grove churches: Lutheran Chapel, Mt. Zion United Church of Christ and St. Mark’s Lutheran.
West Lawn Cemetery, on the opposite side of the road, is privately managed and has no connection to the matter.
Shinn said he wasn’t sure of the exact age of the cemetery’s oldest plots.
“I’ve been involved about 50 years,” he said.
“The Eddleman brothers had a cornfield back there in the ’30s, and they decided they were going to make a cemetery.”
Half of the land was sold to the three churches.
The other half was split into private plots and sold to individuals.
But, Shinn said, there was no provision for care except that which the families themselves would provide.
And when family members stopped visiting regularly, the private graveyard became overgrown and gathered litter.
“Rev. Myers of Mt. Zion decided that something needed to be done about the cemetery because it had gone into disarray,” Shinn said.
“He called a meeting to organize Green Lawn private cemetery.”
“To be on the board, you had to have a plot. I do have a plot that my grandparents are buried in, and my aunt.”
Shinn said he has been the treasurer throughout the board’s history.
Families with plots were asked to give $100 per grave to establish the maintenance fund.
He recollects about 100 people contributing to what he thought would be perpetual care.
“We advertised it as such,” he said. “And we were able to operate from that time until, I’d say, around 2000 on that amount of money.”
But with financial crises and ever-deepening dive in interest rates, the return on that original investment declined.
And efforts to seek charitable contributions to help were not successful.
“Foundations aren’t interested in cemeteries,” Shinn said. “They’re more interested in schools … So we were unable to get new funding.”
A more realistic hope was that the three churches that own the upper portions of Green Lawn could step in.
“When we organized, we hoped that if we ran out of board members that we would turn it over to the three churches,” Shinn said.
When financial troubles first hit, Shinn said letters were sent to the three churches asking if they would take over.
Don Hooks is the chairman of the cemetery committee at St. Mark’s.
“We did have a meeting, a good many years back when they first started having financial trouble,” Hooks said.
“They were ready to turn that cemetery over to the churches.”
Hooks said he believed the maintenance board’s charter called for the churches to take over if ever the funds ran out.
But, he said, the churches didn’t agree to this.
And, he said, the economy has hit churches hard as well.
“Our income was also coming from invested funds,” he said.
“We were tight on paying our man to mow our part of the cemetery,” Hooks said.
“We really don’t have the money to pay to mow that part down there.”
The churches each own a separate part of the lower parcel, south of the private cemetery.
And each church has its own endowment to provide care.
But the three churches’ cemetery committees meet annually and negotiate a group rate for the coming year’s care.
“We had our meeting this month of the three churches,” Hooks said, “and to tell you the truth it (the private cemetery) wasn’t brought up.”
“Speaking for St. Mark’s especially, we don’t plan to try to take it over. We just don’t have the funding.”
But if care ends, Hooks said, “eventually the churches will have to do something about it because it’ll be such an eyesore down there.”
The only other alternative would be to get the town involved.
China Grove Town Manager Bill Pless said no one has contacted him about the cemetery.
He wasn’t aware of the situation, and isn’t sure whether or not the town could, or should, step in.
“That’s not a business we’ve been involved in,” Pless said.
It would be up to the China Grove Board of Aldermen to make any such decisions.
Pless didn’t speculate about whether or not they’d want to get involved in maintaining the graveyard.
Meanwhile, Hooks made it clear that he doesn’t think the citizen committee did anything wrong in trying to manage the funds.
“I’m not going to speak ill of those people,” he said. “They were paying the bills, and then when the stock market kind of fell out several years ago, everybody was affected.”
And he believes the group has done all it could to find alternatives.
“It’s going to be to each his own after January 1st,” Hooks said.
Shinn said he and his fellow trustees have done all they could.
The citizen board doesn’t own the land, and it doesn’t have any other responsibilities.
“Our only purpose was to mow the lawns,” he said.
And now that the original care fund is depleted, the committee will cease to exist.
“We are in the process with the Secretary of State of retiring our charter.
“I’m 82 years old. I don’t want to be involved anymore.”
Green Lawn cemetery will remain, and hopefully others will step in to provide care.
If not, Shinn said, “After December 31st, I doubt if anyone will want to be buried there.”