Commentary

Saunders: Raleigh should honor its dead by taking care of cemetery

bsaunders@newsobserver.comApril 30, 2014 

Pssst, say pal. Wanna buy a cemetery?

There’s an old joke – we’re talking old: so old that the first person who heard it fell off his dinosaur laughing – about a cemetery being such a peaceful place that people are just dying to get into it.

It’s unlikely that anybody is dying to buy one, yet it is conceivable that one in Raleigh could eventually be on the market.

Hillcrest Cemetery on Garner Road is in bad shape, with sunken and unmarked graves, weeds and debris. It is being maintained, to the extent that it is being maintained, by Bruce Lightner, owner of Lightner Funeral Home.

There used to be three funeral homes responsible for maintaining the segregation-era, 3-acre lot, Lightner said, but now the responsibility is solely his. “There was a gentlemen’s agreement between three black funeral homes back in the 1920s, but the other two stopped,” he said. One went out of business, he said, “and the other one decided it cost too much.”

‘Not a lot’

Lightner’s efforts to get Raleigh to take over the cemetery’s maintenance have been unsuccessful because the city doesn’t want to assume the cost and liability of maintaining it. City officials estimate the cost at $104,000 just to get it up to standards and about $80,000 a year after that. Lightner estimates the annual upkeep cost at $8,000.

“That’s not a lot for a city,” Lightner said. “It would cost (the city) even more if it went belly up.”

If it went belly up – hey, that’s his phrase, not mine – with no one to take care of it, that’s when it could go on the market, City Attorney Thomas McCormick told me Wednesday. “If it became a nuisance property and no one had ownership, the city would go through the normal nuisance property process, and it could be sold in foreclosure,” McCormick said.

Lightner said the original trio of funeral homes used to contribute $500 each annually, and that was sufficient to provide for mowing the grass, tending the graves and clearing away the debris and weeds.

Like everything else, though, the cost of caring for the dead’s final resting place has gone up. He estimates that it costs about $1,300 to mow the grass and haul away debris. “Some people go over there and dump (stuff),” he said angrily, twice a month for six months a year, depending upon how often and how much it rains.

‘Historically important’

Lightner said he was told that one reason the city won’t assume responsibility for maintaining the property, donated by his grandfather, is because “it’s not historically important enough. My answer to that,” he said, “is that anyone who has lived a life is historically important.”

Jimmy Thiem, chairman of the city’s Historic Cemetery Advisory Board, told me that right now there are no criteria for establishing the historical significance of a cemetery. Criteria would have to be established, he said, to determine if it is or isn’t historic.

Thiem said in an N&O story last month that the city’s parks department, which oversees city-run cemeteries, doesn’t have the money in its budget to take on another cemetery.

Lightner insists he doesn’t have the money – or, he said – the time to continue paying for the upkeep of a cemetery with about 100 available plots. “It’s a financial hardship. It’s not bringing in any money, but we don’t want it to go to pot.”

It won’t, Lightner said, “not as long as I’m alive. But I’m not going to live forever, and I want some peace of mind that it’s being taken care of.”

He won’t have that peace of mind, nor, I’m guessing, will the souls of the people buried there, if it becomes just a piece of property with a “For Sale” sign on it.

The city doesn’t have to dig all that deeply to ensure that Hillcrest is maintained and that the dead buried therein are left undisturbed and respected in death as many weren’t in life.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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