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Abandoned cemeteries challenge communities

The Janesville Gazette

Bill Shimer trims the grass around headstones at the Fairfield Cemetery in Darien on May 10. Many rural communities struggle with the expense of the upkeep of abandoned cemetaries that they have inherited by Wisconsin law. (AP Photo/The Janesville Gazette, Dan Lassiter)

TOWN OF DARIEN, Wis. (AP) — The lawn has to be cut.

The trees have to be pruned and sometimes removed.

The paths and roads have to be kept in good working order, both for safety and appearance.

For rural communities, cemeteries are a financial burden, another budget line item in increasingly difficult times.

But you don’t often hear them complain. The work, time and money expended in their upkeep are a labor of love and a tribute to their communities’ histories.

When Bill Shimer started working for the town of Darien in 2008, Fairfield Cemetery was a mess.

“Basically, it had gone to seed,” Shimer said.

Located in a wooded lot about one-half mile from County C, Fairfield Cemetery would be easy to forget. But the setting is extraordinary, and it’s plain why early settlers choose it as their resting place.

When Shimer got there, the road leading to the cemetery had been washed out. Scrub brush and trees had taken over. Tree trunks and roots had displaced headstones, and several ambitious trees were growing on top of the Wilkens family crypt.

“We’ve been working at it pretty diligently, trying to do as much as we can to make it a presentable place,” Shimer said.

But Shimer and his crew have plenty of other work to do, as well, and Fairfield can’t occupy all of their time.

One of their many jobs involves helping with the upkeep of another cemetery — the one located near the village of Darien.

Traditionally, cemeteries were run by churches, cemetery associations or perpetual care organizations.

If an association disbands or goes bankrupt, the cemetery becomes the responsibility of the municipality.

That’s the case with the Fairfield Cemetery in Darien Township.

The town of Turtle cares for two such cemeteries, Shopiere and Turtleville.

“Both of the associations disbanded. I think it was way before I was even born,” said Mike Birkholz, town of Turtle highway superintendent. “I don’t think there was anything wrong; the members were just getting up there in age.”

Cemetery upkeep involves significant labor and paperwork. It’s difficult to keep up with the costs, and associations sometimes resort to fundraising.

The Darien Cemetery Association has found a way to stay solvent.

“We’re very fortunate,” said Phil Putman, cemetery association member. “The town makes a donation, and the village makes a donation.”

The public works departments plow the drive and trim the trees.

“Those public works guys are a great crew,” Putman said. “The village and town are very generous with their help.”

The money they receive from the town and the village — about $7,000 — helps pay for the mowing and any other expenses.

The cemetery has about 1,000 gravesites left, and the association sells five or six a year.

In 2011, the Turtle Town Board approved building a columbaria for ashes in the Shopiere Cemetery. Gravesites are still for sale.

It costs about $3,500 for the upkeep of the two cemeteries in Turtle Township. That doesn’t include the cost of labor. The public works department fits cemetery care into its 40-hour work weeks.

“It’s not a burden,” Birkholz said. “A lot of people in our town are buried there, and we’re all neighbors.”
Birkholz, whose duties include managing heavy equipment and corralling stray pit bulls, takes tender care of his town’s cemeteries: “These are our ancestors; we take pride in the work we do.”

Putman feels the same way about his association duties.

Putman is the sexton and his wife is secretary-treasurer. Neither takes the small stipend that the association offers for those jobs.

“We just do it as a payback to our community,” Putman said.

Shimer’s pride expresses itself in his passion for his work. He lists what he and his crew have accomplished and what still needs to be done.

Fairfield’s history has engaged his interest, and he rolls off family names, talks dates, and offers up people in the community who know more than he does.

It’s a feeling he seems to have passed on to his workers.

“It’s not perfect, yet. We’re working on it,” said Aisha Rafferty, who works for the town.

Then she pauses.

“It such a peaceful place,” Rafferty said. “It’s beautiful up there.”

Information from: The Janesville Gazette,

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