Neglected Louisiana Graveyards Face Continued Disrepair

Apr 19, 2012

Kenny Kleinpeter at Highland Historic Cemetery in Baton Rouge. (Tegan Wendland/WRKF)

Baton Rouge's historic cemeteries are part of the backdrop of everyday life here. You probably drive past them on your way home from work or see the above-ground tombs when you drop your kid off at school. But many of the state's graveyards have been beaten up by hurricanes and other natural disasters, and remain in a stunning state of disrepair. In fact, as WRKF's Tegan Wendland reports, there are few resources to keep them from crumbling away.

Kenny Kleinpeter, who is retired from his family's dairy business, now spends much of his time volunteering in Baton Rouge's cemeteries. He says he thinks of it as a valuable hobby, many people spend their Sundays doing the New York Times crossword; he likes to spend his in Baton Rouge graveyards. Kleinpeter loves graveyards so much he bought the house next to one of his favorites, 200-year old Highland Historic Cemetery, the oldest in town. He has meticulously charted every centimeter of this cemetery, poking the ground for coffins and headstones that have shifted over time. He points to misplaced markers that have been reset in the wrong place, and where tree roots have totally up-ended sections of the site. He says, "When you walk into a historic cemetery what you see is very rarely what you'll get, because what you see is the result of a lot of people making a lot of assumptions about who is buried where."

Assistant Attorney General Ryan Seideman says misplaced markers are the least of the state's worries. As the official responsible for investigating the findings of the Louisiana Cemetery Board, which regulates graveyards, Seideman regularly hears reports of exposed remains and open tombs. He adds, the disrepair is not a new problem, "That's the sad reality - is that, over time, so many of these cemeteries that had been community cemeteries just simply fall into disrepair, whether they're municipal or private or what have you. People stop caring for them or the community moves, and the unfortunate result of that is that the folks who are left with family members in these cemeteries just see them go downhill."

Gilbert Cemetery in Baton Rouge was in such bad condition, the cemetery board recently took it over. Reverend Lee Wesley, with Together Baton Rouge, helped organize a campaign to get the place shut down back in November. He says up until then the board just wasn't doing its job, "They were not at that particular time because the owner had actually been operating for a number of years without the proper license. So, if the oversight had been what it should have been, that would not have happened." The cemetery board has licensing authority over 500 of the state's 4,000 sites, but can look into complaints at any of them. But with a staff of two and a board that meets only twice a year, it's an understatement to say they're overwhelmed. They refused to comment for this report. When asked about Lutheran Cemetery, off of Dalrymple, where at least one tomb is still left open following Hurricane Gustav, Siedeman cited the lack of resources. Siedeman says, "I'm afraid Lutheran has gotten in line behind Gilbert. It's a practical issue. We simply do not have the manpower needed to take on the staggering number of issues statewide."

For groundskeeper Carl Mack, at Roselawn cemetery off of Florida Boulevard, caring for plots is a full time job. He says the seven employees he oversees work hard,"They don't have any days off, they don't have any slack periods, if they're not repairing graves they're repairing ruts and filling up graves and weed eating and cutting - all of the time busy." But Mack says he hasn't seen much of the Cemetery Board in the three years he's worked there and the few times they have come in for inspection, they don't walk through at all, "They drive."

Seideman is hanging his hopes on new legislation that would give him and the cemetery board more authority. State Senator Yvonne Dorsey of Baton Rouge has filed a bill to give the board the power to confiscate, identify and rebury skeletal remains from municipal and abandoned cemeteries and broader authority to confiscate remains. But even with a little more power, Seideman says the board would remain woefully under-staffed and under-funded.

Wesley says, it's a shame, "I think what has happened to our graveyards is what has happened with our culture altogether - a lack of concern for people whether they're living or dead."