After lodging criticism against Mountain View Cemetery in Centralia, which was operating without a license, community members have stepped up, holding their first work party on Saturday to clean up the grounds.
Volunteers arrived early in the morning to begin weeding, trimming, and clearing off headstones. Organizers even got businesses to chip in — ACE hardware donated stakes and caution tape to mark off sunken graves, and Hofmeister Tree Service agreed to cut down dead trees that are at risk of falling and damaging headstones.
“You’d be surprised how many businesses are willing to help if you just ask,” Volunteer Carolyn Blankenship said.
Jake Hilts, who first started the “Restore Mountain View Cemetery” Facebook group, said this is just cleanup number one. He hopes enough people are committed to turn it into a regular event.
Tensions between organizers and the cemetery’s owner, Bill Rickard, have also eased in the last few weeks. Concerns and complaints have been raised by the group for months, and organizer Denise Witchey said The Chronicle’s previous article intensified some things.
“Yes, it made him look bad, but I also think it kind of reminded him to renew his license,” Witchey said.
According to the Department of Licensing, Rickard has submitted his license renewal application.
Witchey’s participation with the group was originally spurred by anger. Going grave to grave in an attempt to find her relatives, she found herself getting more and more upset at the state of the cemetery. But now, she wants to move past those feelings and engage in collaborative work.
“I want this to be about love and caring,” she said. “We want to come in here and have (Rickard’s) direction. We want to work with him.”
But Rickard remains skeptical of the group’s efforts to clean up the cemetery, even though he said the volunteers “accomplished quite a bit” on Saturday. He said people have criticized the grounds before, making empty promises to help out. He calls those critics “drive-by shooters,” more willing to criticize than lend a hand.
“When these things happen, you start with a small, small, small group, and then it becomes a zero group,” Rickard said.
He expects the volunteer group to “turn into a little bit of a mess.” The only viable option he sees is the creation of a cemetery district. County governments can create cemetery districts and use tax dollars to take care of them.
“That’s the only long-term solution. Period.”
Mountain View Cemetery is home to history, with graves dating back to before Washington joined the Union. And with that history comes complicated and long-term maintenance. Some older graves, for example, host thin caskets which can rot out and cave in. Rickard says every year or so the ground gives way to a hole. Those graves are so old that you would only be able to see skeletal remains, he said.
The unpredictable footing has been a concern for organizers, who worry about falling into the ground.
The way Rickard sees it, a cemetery district needs to be formed because there’s just no money in running private cemeteries anymore. With more and more people getting cremated, the industry is suffering. When Rickard began working at the cemetery with his father in 1989, he remembers conducting 75-85 burials each year. Compare that to last year, when he did just 15 ground burials.
“It’s just the name of the game,” Rickard said.
But Rickard, who’s now 62, still has to maintain the 27 acres of land. He said it’s a two-man job. Now with his father gone and no money coming in, it’s nearly impossible. The removal of one dead tree can be thousands of dollars.
“It’s more of a noose around my neck than anything else,” he said.
Brad Rook, whose son is buried at the cemetery, agrees that the job is too big for any volunteer group to handle.
“I still in my heart believe that this is just too big of a project,” he said. “If somebody falls in those things, not only is it ghoulish and just gross, but it’s a potential death trap … I think there’s a lot more to it than trimming and painting.”