By Troy Bishopp
As a descendant, son, and father-in-law of 3 American Veterans, Memorial Day is a bit more poignant than the party atmosphere surrounding the media’s ode to the unofficial start to summer. For me, the day gives me pause to reflect, honor and give thanks for my liberty, knowing someone laid down their life for my freedom. Freedom is never truly free.
This holiday also celebrates the very coincidental birth of my third grandchild, Hadley Steele Owens on the same day as my Iraqi-war veteran son-in-law, Travis Owens, and daughter Lindsay were celebrating their wedding anniversary. It’s hard to believe one year ago I was finishing up a piece of anniversary pie and then rushing off to the hospital for a birth. God has blessed us that our granddaughter will live free because of her dad’s service to this nation. We have much to be thankful for.
Being a trustee of the Deansboro Cemetery Association and member of the Sons of the American Legion, Memorial Day is a time of feverous activity to make the hallowed ground presentable to family and friends who come to honor the past generations. It is a place of uncompromising, spiritual retreat where you can lie down in the grass and be at one with the lord while finding strength in those who have blessed our lives.
I was a naïve, greenhorn in being a trustee of this sacred seven acres. I didn’t know the logistics or financial responsibilities in caring for all the loved ones who trusted that the memories, gravesites and grounds would be taken care of forever. To me, perpetual care is an oath to honor not just a job. My predecessors believed in this charge and its mine and everyone’s responsibility to carry this vision out. “We must not forget” is a creed that cannot be compromised.
At our association’s annual meeting, a memo from New York State (who we are bound to by law), suggested we should consider not mowing the grass as often to save money on maintenance. I was personally abhorred by this sentiment as a slippery slope to the oath of integrity. I have seen first-hand how an over-grown cemetery respects no one but the almighty buck. It’s the principle of the thing.
But then I look at our financial statement and see that the cemetery funds which the law strictly instructs the board to invest in, with the safest, most conservative FDIC insured investment portfolio possible, yielded .75% interest. These legacy financial resources are essentially producing nothing towards maintenance, insurance or improvements. Annual plot sales, burial fees and donations are the only way dollars are generated to keep the grass cut other than a miniscule grant opportunity. These barely keep up with expenses nowadays given the mandates we must operate under. Sound familiar?.
I’ve seen this issue loom for years now. Families, friends and donors have responded to the call by providing much appreciated partnering funds in maintaining our standard of care. To see it through, we have a terrific local team in Deansboro Fireman, Tom VanDenbergh and his U.S. Army Vietnam Veteran father, Bob VanDenbergh, along with their mowing team maintaining our grounds. The trustees volunteer their time and equipment to fill in where needed. We have shaken things off with our commitment to the mission by working hard together, finding cooperative resources and being vigilant in our financial, environmental and social responsibility to remember our loved ones.
My research has shown this is not an isolated issue. This unsettling reality plagues not just us but also 66% of small cemeteries and 74% of large cemeteries statewide. That’s a lot of hallowed ground folks!
The tragedy unfolding is forcing small communities of volunteers to either fund-raise, do the maintenance yourself if you can find the volunteers and equipment or basically commit the egregious, forced act of abandonment. The last tool of abandonment (NYS policy guidance) forces the township and local taxpayers to keep the maintenance up in some way, which in most cases, is bare bones.
We have 2 small cemeteries to my east that contain veterans as well as township founding member families buried there. On Memorial Day a few years back, the grass was so high it covered the gravesites in a shadowy, place of neglect. I asked the town official about the situation and he commented that the highway department didn’t have the time or budget to mow the grass or maintain the stones. As I said before, an over-grown cemetery respects no one and is a poor strategy for respecting our ancestors who have preserved our liberty and made us the greatest country on earth.
If I’ve hit a nerve, great, because this is not how free people act towards their fallen heroes and family, and I will not remain silent anymore. I follow Marcus Luttrell’s creed: Never Quit.
What can you do? Ask why? Take an active role in your community cemetery situation and educate yourself and the next generations on the issues of your place. Volunteer in any capacity you can. Give a charitable, tax-deductible monetary gift or planned donation to your local cemetery association. Advocate for change and more grant mechanisms with your elected officials because this situation is barely on the radar. Join your local veteran’s group and stay vigilant in the remembrance and support of all veterans, past and present.
In between barbeques and pool-splashes over the holiday weekend, please visit your local place of remembrance and give thanks to those who have served while also thanking the men and women who care for your loved ones throughout the season. Remember this sentiment: “They (Veterans) quietly live out the idea expressed in the Bible (John 15:13): “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” ― Marcus Luttrell, Service: A Navy SEAL at War