February 25, 2015 Edition

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Using a front-end loader, Dan Ellison dumps a load of dirt and levels it over a fairly new gravesite that had sunken at Lawrence Memorial Park in Walnut Ridge. He has repeated that process about a dozen times during mild winter days.
TD Photo ~ John Bland

Appearance of cemetery
relies on financial support

John Bland

Upkeep for a cemetery the size of Lawrence Memorial Park in Walnut Ridge is a major undertaking and expense. The cemetery consists of 23 acres and contains in excess of 10,000 headstones, as well as gravesites that are unmarked.

The Lawrence Memorial Park Association oversees the preservation of the cemetery, and as president of the association, Dan Ellison heads that effort. He explained that maintenance costs have averaged over $18,000 annually and continue to rise with the increased costs of mowing, fuel and chemicals.

"I think we have an obligation to our families and friends to maintain the cemetery and keep it beautiful," Ellison said. He obviously feels that obligation as he, like many others, has parents, siblings, neighbors and friends who are buried in the cemetery.

Besides mowing and weed control in the warm weather months, there is always work to be done at the cemetery. There are holes and sunken gravesites that need fill dirt, gravesites that need leveling, crape myrtles to prune, debris to be picked up and grave markers that need to be straightened or brought upright.

Several decades ago, a trust fund was established in memory of the late Robert H. Smith Sr., local banker and civic leader. Individuals or families can pay a one-time fee of $50 per gravesite to the Robert H. Smith Memorial Trust Fund for perpetual care. Funds from the trust continue to pay the majority of the cemetery maintenance expenses, but the remaining costs must be paid for by the families who have not paid into the fund.

Every year, unless they have paid into this fund, the families with loved ones buried in the cemetery are mailed an assessment notice of $6 per gravesite for upkeep. This amount has not increased since 2000. "We are considering increasing this to $10," said Ellison.

Unfortunately, many of these notices are returned by the post office as "undeliverable," and the association has no contact information for other family members. In years past, approximately 300 notices were sent out annually, but the response was minimal. "We send about 60 notices now compared to 300 in 2004," said Ellison. Many of these do not send payment.

The expenses for upkeep of the cemetery are now greater than the income. Income from the trust fund only covers the cost of mowing. It is not sufficient to pay for gravel, chemicals for weed control, diesel for the tractor to level gravesites and to fill sunken gravesites, maintenance of the tractor or any other equipment needed from time to time, he said. "If we are unable to generate more revenue, the appearance of the cemetery will suffer," he added.

"It is hoped that anyone who has a family member buried in the cemetery would contact us and pay his or her fair share for upkeep of the cemetery," Ellison said. This would pertain to those who have not paid for perpetual care or who have not received an annual assessment notice.

Dan became involved in the cemetery association after Gene Matthews Sr. asked for his help some 10 to 12 years ago. Rachael Rainey was involved with the association and Robert H. Smith Trust and kept the cemetery records for some 35 years.

Rainey asked Dan's wife for her help in sending out the assessment notices and keeping the cemetery records when her health began to fail.

Teresa Lovelady and Kendell Snedeker serve on the association with the Ellisons, but others have have stepped down, moved or passed away in recent years. Some of the former members are Zada Dickey, Bob Parker, Weldon and Elizabeth Holder, Bill and Mary Holder and Joe Smith.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get people to serve on the association. Ellison has asked several individuals who are involved in the cemetery through their work at local funeral homes to serve. Ellison can be contacted at 870-886-9793 for questions pertaining to the assessments or serving on the association.

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