COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — Crumbling brick pillars at Greenlawn Memorial Park cemetery in east Columbus show the wear and tear of time. The tangle of brush that covered them not long ago, however, is gone. Flat headstones that had sunk in the ground, swallowed by crabgrass and dirt, are being discovered — and some raised. They are once again visible, honoring loved ones buried beneath them. Choked walkways are passable, dead trees have been removed and at least some records seemingly lost, are being reconstructed.
Thanks to a small band of volunteers, Greenlawn Memorial Park on Highway 69 South is finally getting some attention and care it has done without for far too long. The faithful show up with chainsaws, mowers, shovels and wheelbarrows, responding to a call first sent out by Darwin and Lee Ann Turk on Facebook in October. That’s when the Turks visited the gravesites of some of Lee Ann’s relatives. Dismayed at the state of the small cemetery, Darwin went back to tidy up the overgrown family plots, but he realized he couldn’t stop at that.
“There were gravestones that had slid down into the ground, and crabgrass had entangled almost every grave out there,” the former U.S. Marine said. Trees and brambles had encroached unchecked and a round garden feature with brick columns supporting stone Bibles had greatly deteriorated.
“It was just a mess out there,” Lee Ann Turk said. “Darwin told me, ‘I can’t leave it like this. I’m not supposed to leave it like this. Get on that Facebook watch page and see if we can get some help ’cause we can’t do it by ourselves.'”
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That’s how the reclamation of Greenlawn began. It has since involved organized work days, phone calls to city officials, online appeals for information and a certain amount of detective work, especially on findagrave and ancestry websites.
“We have found close to 130 graves, but we know there are some indentions where we think people are buried with no stone,” Lee Ann said. “We’re using metal detectors to try and pick up anything we can; that’s how we found a lot of stones.”
Among those interred are more than 20 military veterans, and even an Alaskan gold miner. How he came to be buried there is just one of many unanswered questions.
Caleb Pounders of Lowndes Funeral Home has done some exhaustive research into Greenlawn’s past.
“Best I can tell, the cemetery started in 1955,” said Pounders. Owners of the corporation that established it never lived in Mississippi. For reasons not fully known, it appears perpetual care and maintenance ceased at the cemetery some time between 1975 and 1985 or 1986. The corporation no longer exists. Greenlawn, in essence, was abandoned. Several families, however, still hold deeds to plots they purchased and have the right to lay their loved ones to rest there if they wish. Except for occasional mowing by the city, upkeep is left to surviving family, if there is any.
Actual ownership of the 17-acre cemetery property appears to be in limbo.
“It’s just a shame: It could be a very nice cemetery,” said Pounders, who continues to communicate with people at the state level about Greenlawn’s future. Any path forward is complicated by strict laws and regulations.
“I’m trying to do something so we can make sure it’s taken care of,” the funeral director said.
Sandra Clemmons Custard and her husband, Kenneth Custard, are among volunteers working toward Greenlawn’s restoration. Sandra has grandparents and other family buried there. Her father, before he passed away, spent many an hour trying to keep their graves from being overtaken by nature.
“My daddy was 91 when he died, but when he was in his late 80s and was able, bless him, he used to go down there with an old kaiser blade and weedeater,” she said. “He tried so hard, and he went to his grave worried that the cemetery had not been kept up.”
Custard and her father conducted courthouse research of their own before he died, trying to determine who should be held accountable for maintaining Greenlawn. She has given copies of any documents her family has to Pounders. The Custards have also invested sweat equity, including taking a metal detector to locate sunken headstones. (Pounders’ research indicates an early regulation that Greenlawn markers had to include bronze.)
“We were able to find a few markers,” she said. “Some we found, we’d take a rod to stick down in the ground to see if there was a marker there. We found one that had sunken about 2 or 3 feet in the ground.”
The sinking, Pounders indicated, is at least partially due to ground settling.
“It was just a pitiful shame the shape that cemetery was in,” said Custard. (The improvement) never would have gotten off the ground if the Turks hadn’t put forth their effort.”
Other volunteers have responded to the call, like Janice Wood and her husband, David Wood, of New Hope. They have no personal connection to the cemetery, but saw the Turks and others working there one day and decided to pitch in. David brought out a tractor to help level ground and reset stones.
After Christina Chunn learned of the project, she urged her 14-year-old son, Hunter, and his friends in Civil Air Patrol to help on a workday. The group for 12- to 18-year olds is an auxiliary of the Air Force.
“We helped clean up an overgrown forest area, hauled limbs down to the curb and filled in some holes near grave sites,” Hunter said. “You could barely read the names on some of the graves. There are a lot of veterans (buried there). It’s a nice cemetery that deserves to be cleaned up.”
Other unselfish acts have surfaced. Burns Dirt Construction donated a load of dirt. American Legion Post 69 provided flags for gravesites on Veterans Day.
Families like Pam Bullock’s are grateful. Her grandparents and other family members are interred at Greenlawn.
“For almost 30 years, my mother and aunt fought the earth themselves, to make sure it didn’t cover their parents’ graves,” the Columbus woman said. When she saw the cemetery after volunteers had made headway, “We almost started crying, it looked so good.”
“If it wasn’t for everyone who’s helped, we couldn’t have handled it, but we still need help,” Lee Ann Turk said.
Darwin Turk continues to check on the cemetery almost every day. The sight of poinsettias on several of the graves lifts him up as he considers an ongoing list of goals, a wish list of sorts. He’d like to see some type of border fence up, perhaps a decorative link-chain which he thinks was there before. He’d like to get a flag pole erected, and he and Lee Ann hope there is a brickmason in the community who might donate time to repair brickwork. There is still an overgrown wooded area that needs attention, too.
“This might be my last hoorah,” said Darwin, who remains committed to Greenlawn. He and his wife have taken it on as a mission, Pam Bullock said.
“And all of us are absolutely thrilled,” she added. “We can’t say thank you enough.”