JACK 'MILES' VENTIMIGLIA
RICHMOND – With Memorial Day just three days away, much of the grass at Richmond Cemetery remained knee high and soaked root-to-stem by constant rain – not the kind of place families want to go to remember loved ones.
People say they are “pissed” about tall grass at Richmond and neighboring Sunny Slope cemeteries.
They do not care for excuses. They just want to be able to find their relatives’ headstones so they can pay respects on the holiday.
“There is a huge outcry in town about the deplorable conditions of the cemeteries,” former Richmond Cemetery board member Bruce Thurman said. “They’re overgrown. I’ve been told Sunny Slope has been mowed, but what’s up there needs to be baled. The Richmond Cemetery has not been cut. It’s all grown up in weeds and grass.”
Comments from concerned to crass about the cemetery’s condition have appeared on social media.
“It’s awful,” Keesha Johnson posted to show concern. “It’s time for community help. There are broken stones, stones falling over. It’s in bad shape.”
Paulene Karl, 90, called The Richmond Daily News to voice her concern for her parents’ grave.
“You couldn’t even see my mom and dad’s grave. It completely covered the grave,” she said. “You can’t even find their markers.”
“People are furious. I’m furious,” Thurman said. “Both my parents and grandparents on both sides are buried in these cemeteries with other loved ones.”
Thurman’s roots in the community run deep. His maternal grandparents are buried at Richmond Cemetery along with Gov. Austin King, under whose term the state from 1848 to 1853 added eight counties and expanded rail service; and with Robert Ford, the “dirty little coward” who on the state’s behalf assassinated Jesse James – shooting the man in the back of the head while his wife, Zee, worked in the kitchen and his young children, Mary and Jesse Jr., played outside their tiny house in St. Joseph.
Thurman also is a former Sunny Slope Cemetery board member. His paternal grandparents and parents are buried there, along with “the mob’s governor,” Forrest Smith, a former Ray County deputy assessor and clerk, then a state auditor, whose term as governor from 1949 to 1953 included the cloud of mob support: “When (Charlie) Binaggio swung the vote for Forrest Smith and he won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1948, he convinced the gambling interests throughout the state that with their financial support Smith could win in the November election and they ... put up … between $50,000 to $200,000,” AmericanMafia.com states.
There is a lot of history in the cemeteries, but more important to many people are their connections to loved ones. They want what Thurman wants – a well-maintained final resting place for family and friends. His calls got to the root of the problem – a case of nature vs. man, and nature coming out on top.
“The whole trouble with mowing has been the deluge of rain,” Thurman said. “There’s such a large area to mow and anyone with any common sense knows that wet grass is going to stop the mowers, and then you’ve got to clean the blades, and it’s quite a tedious situation to have to deal with.”
The private contractor for cemetery mowing, under present circumstances, made some headway, but not enough, Thurman said.
Some people, including Sheriff Garry Bush, have tried to help with mowing, but ran into the same issue, Sandy Burns, who has relatives buried at Richmond Cemetery, said.
“It needs to be baled,” she said, independently of Thurman’s same comment.
Some private cemeteries can afford a maintenance crew or may use tax dollars to operate, with new burials helping to cover costs. Richmond and Sunny Slope cemeteries do not have that kind of income. Each time the grass is cut at Richmond Cemetery, the board pays $1,250 from a dwindling nest egg of less than $60,000, which means that after about five more years, the cemetery could be bankrupt.
“And that cemetery is the old, old cemetery,” Burns said. “All your city fathers are there. … There’s hardly anyone left to donate. There are no burials, and that’s where you make your money because you charge more per burial. Well, they’re not burying up there because it’s full.”
“It’s about full and there’s nobody left, really, to be buried there,” Thurman said.
There still is room at Sunny Slope, he said.
In addition to mowing issues, vandals have destroyed gravestones. Burns said someone broke open an above-ground vault, then stole and sent the skull to California. Such matters cost money to rectify and the board is doing what is possible with the money available.
If the cemetery goes broke, who would take over is not clear, though any property abandoned within a city usually becomes that city’s problem.
RICHMOND – Rather than people griping about a bad situation as many people have been doing through social media, Bruce Thurman and Sandy Burns have asked them to become part of the solution.
Donations can raise the money needed to address mowing, gravestone maintenance and other issues at the cemetery, the two said.
Donations to improve conditions at Sunny Slope Cemetery may be sent to Mike Harrison, Harrison Body Shop, P.O. Box 205, Richmond, MO 64085.
Donations to improve conditions for Richmond City Cemetery may be sent to Powers Alder, 81 Tomahawk Lane, Lexington, MO 64067.