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Thursday, May 6, 2004 03:01 pm

Rest in pieces

Many tombstones are broken, toppled, or leaning
Photo by Todd Spivak

This weekend some 30,000 people are expected to stroll the expansive, rolling hills of Oak Ridge Cemetery for Mother's Day. And if someone is injured while visiting a loved one's gravesite, Springfield native Robert Pinkston won't be surprised.

"The mismanagement of that cemetery has created a dangerous environment," Pinkston says. "If a skinny 8-year-old kid can knock a tombstone on himself, how safe can it be?"

He's referring to the broken leg suffered on April 12 by Andrew Richards.

As reported in last week's Illinois Times, Andrew was rushed to an emergency room and fitted for a full-length plaster cast after an old tombstone pinned his rail-thin frame to the ground. The boy admitted to "wriggling" the stone.

The city of Springfield, which owns and operates the 365-acre cemetery (Illinois' largest), sent the Richards family a letter denying any liability for the incident, and has since reset the stone.

Just six months ago, Pinkston, a 40-year-old state employee, appeared before the Springfield City Council and the Oak Ridge Cemetery Board to warn of deteriorating conditions.

"We are in danger of losing parts of the cemetery forever if we don't act now to save it," he testified. He came armed with dozens of photos of gravestones that were broken, toppled, or leaning.

Last Sunday, while hiking through Oak Ridge's historic northern section, Pinkston pointed out numerous stones in disrepair. Some lie shattered on the ground, while others teeter several inches off their bases. He believes vandalism accounts for some of the damage.

"The city's become a slumlord over a magnificent cemetery," he says.

But LuAnn Johnson, executive director of the cemetery, says there "hasn't been a single incident of vandalism at Oak Ridge in more than five years."

"We really don't have vandalism here," she says.

As for gravesites that appear neglected, Johnson, a $72,885-a-year city employee and first cousin of Mayor Tim Davlin, says solving that problem is out of her hands.

"The stones do not belong to us and therefore we don't have the right to [repair them]," she says. "They belong to the families."

All burials at Oak Ridge include a one-time "endowment care fee," which is used toward maintenance. But the fee isn't used to restore broken tombstones, Johnson says. "By 'care,' it means we mow as often as the cemetery can afford to mow. We try to mow at Oak Ridge one time a week."

Pinkston says, "If you mow around the tombstone, but don't fix them, that's neglect."

After Pinkston's presentation last fall before the five-member cemetery board, Johnson took some limited action. Deciding there was "no need to hire independent engineers," she asked cemetery board member Jack Healy, a retired civil engineer and former senior partner at Hanson Professional Services Inc., to conduct an informal survey.

Healy, 71, was appointed to the cemetery board last summer by the mayor. "I'm a longtime family friend of the Davlin family," he says, when asked why he was tapped for the position.

Healy reports that he witnessed no erosion of the cemetery topography. "We saw no erosion of the ground," Healy says. "But yes, there was a lot of deterioration among the stones."

And that seems to be the consensus of most people who spend any time at Oak Ridge. Harry Graham, who has led private tours of the cemetery for 20 years, agrees that parts of the cemetery are in bad shape.

"It's supposed to be a national cemetery," Graham says. "But the only part they care about is the entrance and the areas by the Vietnam and Lincoln memorials."


The city's handling of the incident that for weeks has kept Andrew Richards out of school has raised the ire of the Illinois Cemetery and Funeral Home Association, a Homewood-based trade association that represents nearly 300 cemetery, funeral home, and crematory owners and operators.

"It worries me that nothing is being done," says association president Victoria Hand. "There are ways to handle these types of problems. They need to make sure that stone will never harm a child again."

Hand says she plans to contact both the mayor and Johnson by early next week to call for a "thorough investigation" of the cemetery.

Attorney Harvey Lapin, general counsel for the association, cited a similar incident that occurred in Chicago in the early '80s in which a boy was killed by a loose tombstone.

He says the city must respond to complaints of neglect at the cemetery just as it would to a sewer line break on a city street, or a crumbling house that could endanger a passerby.

"I think they're being stupid," Lapin says. "They're acting in utter disregard of visitors there."

He says that, at minimum, signs should be posted at Oak Ridge warning of dangerous conditions.

But Johnson, 57, swatted away that suggestion. "I've been involved in the death care industry for many years, and have never seen a sign like that," she says.

Meanwhile, Andrew remains laid up on his family's couch on South MacArthur Boulevard, anchored by a cast that weighs nearly as much as he does.

The Richards family has suffered a series of setbacks caused by Andrew's injury.

The boy's father, Christopher Richards, says he faces possible suspension without pay at his job as a mail carrier for the U.S. Post Office for taking off two weeks to tend to his son.

In addition to medical co-payments, they've had to buy new clothes for Andrew to fit over his cast and cancelled plans to travel to Ohio to visit relatives. "There goes our vacation time for later this year," he says.

Adding insult to injury, talk show host Mike Wilson of radio station WMAY (AM 970) led a lengthy call-in discussion last Friday in which he called Andrew a "brat" and said the boy's grandmother should have her leg broken for leaving him unattended.

"I did get a little carried away on the air," Wilson told Illinois Times after his show aired. Wilson, who also doubles as a newscaster for WMAY, said he never spoke to the Richards family nor was he familiar with conditions at the cemetery.

Christopher Richards says Wilson's tirade was callous and irresponsible. And that's precisely how he views the city's handling of his son's injury.

"This whole situation infuriates me, to say the very least," he says. "But there's not a lot more I can do about it."

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