Many of Richard Vandervort’s family members, including both of his parents and his son, are buried at Greenwood Memorial Park, one of the oldest cemeteries in Centralia.
For many years, he volunteered to help maintain the grounds.
“I love that place,” he said. “I have a big family and lot of them are buried out there. This is a horrible mess. I don’t know who to contact or to talk to about the condition of the cemetery.”
Although he’s disabled, Vandervort does what he can to maintain his family plots, but without a person to care for the grounds, the cemetery is only getting worse. He was planning on purchasing a plot for himself, but he is not allowed to because of the issues surrounding the facilities.
Now, the Washington State Funeral and Cemetery Board, a subsidiary of the Department of Licensing, considers Greenwood abandoned.
According to DOL spokeswoman Christine Anthony, because the cemetery is private property, the DOL doesn’t have the authority to declare it an abandoned property. However, by considering it abandoned, they can warn members of the public looking to bury someone.
“Considering it abandoned means people can hopefully do things in the cemetery that they might not have been able to do,” Anthony said. “They can visit their loved ones, place markers at a grave or bury someone if they’ve previously purchased a plot.”
Anthony recommends that anyone who already owns a plot and would like to bury someone get in contact with a funeral director who can help make the arrangements. Funeral directors should have access to the necessary resources for a burial. However, because the cemetery is considered abandoned, people will not be able to purchase new plots until someone takes control of Greenwood.
Currently, no one is employed or designated to perform maintenance work at the cemetery and there is no clear-cut provision for operation of a private cemetery after someone has been removed from authority.
In the meantime, local families are maintaining their plots.
“We are going to be talking to the local funeral homes and law enforcement down there to let them know since it’s considered abandoned … in case families need help,” Anthony said.
Greenwood Memorial Park has had issues for several years involving its former sextons Jennifer L. Duncan and, before her, John Baker. Duncan took over operations when Baker was sentenced to prison in 2010.
Members of the state Funeral and Cemetery Board charged Duncan in February 2014 with violations of state laws regarding use and care of cemetery funds and authorized investments. The charges stated that Duncan used $6,000 of the cemetery’s endowment money to buy a lawnmower in October 2010, and that she also moved a granite base from one grave site to another earlier that year. She has also been arrested in the past for violating a protection order that prevented her from coming within 1,000 feet of any grave owned by a man named Troy Houghtaling. The Funeral and Cemetery Board had also barred Duncan from operating or owning the cemetery.
The cemetery is still technically owned by Baker, who has no role in its operation.
Last year, Centralia City Manager Rob Hill spoke with Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, and Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, about finding a solution for the troubled cemetery. Since that conversation, Hill said he hasn’t heard any updates, but that the matter is in the state’s hands.
“The system was a little flawed in how it was established. If you ask me, that cemetery is a poster child for how flawed it is,” Hill said.
On Monday, DeBolt said Orcutt has taken the lead role in addressing the cemetery, but it’s proving difficult.
“It’s actually a very complicated issue,” DeBolt said. “We haven’t figured it out yet.”
Orcutt said he’s spoken with the state Funeral and Cemetery Board and thinks there’s a path to deal with the cemetery to avoid legislation.
“There’s a lot of moving parts to this, a lot of different aspects. We may not need to do anything legislatively, but there is a group that’s going to look at this issue on a more global scale than the Greenwood itself,” Orcutt said.
Orcutt said the state is trying to balance the immediate need to fix the situation at Greenwood while not setting a precedent that could impact private property rights, but he said there isn’t a definite timeline as to when it will all be resolved.
“We’ve got a really bad actor here, but do we want to throw everybody’s property rights out?” he asked. “We want to make sure if we do something along those lines (of taking control of the cemetery) we’ve got really strong sideboards. That’s what makes legislation so difficult, we want to make sure it’s a last resort.”
Greenwood is one of the oldest official cemeteries in the city. Some of its graves date back to the 1890s and it includes some of the city’s most prominent historical figures. Veterans from numerous conflicts, as far back as the Spanish American War, are buried there.