One of Centralia’s oldest cemeteries has fallen into extreme disrepair, and a woman who has taken on duties of caretaker is trying to mobilize volunteers to restore it.
Take a walk around the Greenwood Memorial Park just outside Centralia city limits and it becomes clear the grounds are in serious need of maintenance. At least two graves have collapsed already, with one of them covered by a tarp held down by cinder blocks. Garbage fills some grave plots, and rainwater that has collected sits and stagnates in collapsed areas.
It’s a sad state of affairs for a burial ground along Van Wormer Street and Reynolds Avenue that shows its roots extending back to Centralia’s early days. One carries the name Borst and a date from the late 1890s. Even Wesley Everest, one of the central figures in the Centralia Massacre of 1919, is buried at Greenwood, with his headstone entered into the National Register of Historic Places.
Jennifer Duncan, who lives in Chehalis and still maintains a role as the cemetery’s caretaker despite multiple prior statements that she wished to quit, carries a sense of reluctant responsibility for the property. Duncan says she’s getting tired of all the trouble that has embroiled what is for all intents and purposes a historic property in the Hub City, while at the same time expressing an urgent need for help to restore the property.
“I just don’t know why I keep doing it,” Duncan told The Chronicle. “I’ve put a good deal of work into this place. We just need help.”
The operating status of Greenwood Memorial Park is unclear at best. Duncan, an Army veteran, isn’t even the owner of the cemetery. That responsibility falls to John C. Baker, whose home is on the property — and the legal battles between Duncan and Baker have been well-documented.
The Washington State Department of Licensing doesn’t even list the cemetery as active in its online license database, and department spokeswoman Christine Anthony told The Chronicle Friday that disciplinary action against Duncan is pending.
However, as of Friday, Anthony didn’t immediately have further details on what that action was, but indicated it was proposed by the state’s cemetery board, and will be administered by the Department of Licensing as they are the license authority for cemeteries in the state of Washington.
For her part, Duncan said the state’s cemetery board is trying to punish her for using endowment money to buy a lawnmower with which to maintain the cemetery’s property.
“We don’t have any money to even keep up the grounds,” Duncan said Wednesday. “What do they expect us to do?”
Duncan estimated the total endowment fund at $12,000, and said the funds have been “below five figures” many times in the past. That fund had lost at least $62,323 as of late 2011, and a statement of charges had been filed against Baker at that time.
Duncan still maintains — as she did in a Chronicle article two years ago — that she tries to avoid Baker however possible, especially after long court battles the two fought that ended in Baker pleading guilty to stalking Duncan, criminal trespassing and violation of an anti-harassment order. Duncan says his presence hampers her ability to get meaningful work done on the property.
Owning a cemetery isn’t exactly a money-making enterprise, unless you have a healthy enough endowment fund or the cemetery is a publicly funded venture.
Lewis County has 10 cemetery districts, and each generates a small revenue stream through property tax for maintenance and upkeep at their rural locations. But in Centralia and Chehalis, no cemetery districts exist. Instead, each cemetery owner has to find his or her own way to generate a cash flow in order to maintain the property, fund burials and keep the grounds looking respectable.
For Greenwood Memorial Park, that is much easier said than done.
“I get $800 a month in disability from the military, and most of that goes here,” Duncan said as she walked the grounds Wednesday. “It’s just not enough.”
Lack of money aside, the legal troubles between Duncan and Baker had marred efforts to restore the cemetery to the glory it once had. Baker took over the cemetery in the mid-2000s and its previous owner, the Sticklin family, washed their hands of the property.
The Sticklin last name was associated with the cemetery for years, but it and the Sticklin Funeral Chapel in Centralia were in fact different enterprises. However, many people still contact Sticklin Funeral Chapel with inquiries regarding the burial grounds on Centralia’s northwestern fringe, and Daniel La Plaunt, the funeral home’s manager, does his best to help.
“We still get a lot of calls from people that have questions about the cemetery,” LaPlaunt said. “We’ve even gone so far to rectify problems that were never our responsibility.”
LaPlaunt says he has worked with Duncan in getting her initial license to conduct business at the cemetery. He says he has done “everything he can” to intercede for them, but many times it is to no avail as families call asking to move their loved ones’ remains to other places of rest.
“It grieves me that it is the only cemetery that we make more disinterments from than actual burials into,” LaPlaunt said.
Much work remains to be done for Greenwood Memorial Park to be viable once again. Duncan hopes to start today with a work party, in which she says she and any volunteers wishing to join in a work party will fill the collapsed areas in the burial ground with dirt, scrape moss off decades-old cement and edge several of the burial sites.
In the long-term, Duncan said, she has been in touch with a religious order known as the Sisters of Zion, whom she said have expressed some level of interest in possibly taking over the administration of the property.
One of the main goals is to build a proper office to house records that themselves are in a shambles.
“If anyone has building materials laying around, we could use them,” Duncan said.
Labor and money are the two most needed resources. Duncan said new crypt tops to replace ones that are chipping away will cost about $250 each, and fresh paint will also add to expenses.
But can the cemetery ever be fully restored to what it once was? Duncan says despite her being tired of the issues that have plagued the grounds, she recognizes the cemetery’s value to the community and hopes she can do her best.
“This cemetery has been here since before Washington became a state,” Duncan said. “There’s even a Spanish-American War section here. It’s very important to the people around here.”
Christopher Brewer: (360) 807-8235