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    Bit to Do

    Andy Harpole Won’t Give Up on Eastern Cemetery, Even Though City of Louisville H
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    Every Sunday, Andy Harpole spends hours cutting grass, moving debris and bagging trash in Louisville’s Eastern Cemetery, working around half-buried, crooked and broken headstones. When family members drive up, looking in vain for plots among the weeds and vines, he tries to help them the best he can and, if needed, will cut a path through the grass so they can actually get there. At first, he worked by himself. These days, a group of volunteers joins him.

    He does it all with his own equipment and supplies, plus donations from his volunteers. Because of a strange series of events, Eastern Cemetery has had no legal owner for years, and except for a few other ambitious folks who tried to clean up the property but quickly gave up in frustration, almost no maintenance for over 20 years. It has become a no-man’s land, of sorts, says Harpole, in the middle of the city: No legal owner oversees its care and maintenance; the city refuses to take responsibility for the property; even the police have no interest in calls about illegal activities inside the cemetery.

    Predating Cave Hill, Eastern Cemetery in the 1840s was one of the first cemeteries in the country to allow burials of blacks and whites in the same property; one of the nation’s first planned, park-like cemeteries; and the site of Louisville’s first crematory. It also became the site of decades of egregious multiple burials and frauds perpetrated against local families. University of Louisville archaeologist and anthropologist Philip J. DiBlasi, who has researched the cemetery’s history and worked with Harpole, says the reselling of plots and reuse of graves appears to go all the way back to 1858. When an employee blew the whistle on the illegal and unethical practices of the owner, Louisville Crematories and Cemetery Company, in the 1980s, the fact that the company kept detailed written records of its illegal practices greatly helped the Attorney General’s investigation. The resale of already used burial plots and the burial of two, three or even eight bodies in the same plot all stopped, but the cemetery was thrown into a legal limbo that persists today.

    Two statutes were in play, explains Harpole. The first said that any cemetery that was abandoned was to be taken over by the city in which it was located; in this case, Louisville. The second said that any entity that takes over the cemetery is liable for any known improperly interred bodies. The estimated liability for Eastern Cemetery was $59 million. Not eager to be saddled with that liability, Louisville and the state tried to keep the owners in business and the cemetery viable. By 1992, there was literally nowhere left to bury and the owners walked away.  Though the Louisville Crematories and Cemetery Company was legally dissolved, Louisville city officials, along with state officials, decided not to acknowledge that fact – and still don’t. The official position is that the cemetery remains privately owned, though no owner exists.

    So Louisville now has on either side of one wall Cave Hill Cemetery, “a work of art,” and Eastern Cemetery, a place that is “so sad,” says Harpole. As a teenager living in the Highlands, he felt drawn to both cemeteries and hung out there often, feeling like he “was a weirdo.” As an adult, the area still attracted him as a place to retreat with his thoughts. In 2013, while dealing with an extremely stressful family situation, Harpole found himself unable to sleep and in need of a way to exhaust himself physically to see if that would help. During one of his walks at Eastern, looking at the eight-foot-tall grass, he first thought, “I could cut the grass at this place.” And so he did.

    Once he committed himself to the project, he sought others who might be interested too, and found “the people I was looking for” through a Facebook page for what is now the Friends of Eastern Cemetery. Residents of Louisville and surrounding communities gather on Sundays and work together, bonded by their interest in preservation, genealogy and cemeteries. Until the paperwork for the Friends’ application for non-profit status is finalized, nobody gets a tax write-off for their donations, but that doesn’t stop them, says Harpole. And once the non-profit is established, Harpole says he’ll know that Eastern Cemetery will finally have a reliable source of support so that it won’t fall back into disrepair. “It has had a big, black cloud over it for so long, I’d like it to be an asset, and it can be,” he says.

    In only a year, Harpole has taken his project far beyond a physical clean-up of the site. He’s built relationships with influential parties from the Attorney General to historian and Metro Councilman Tom Owen. Making it clear, he says, that he was not asking and would not ask for funds (as previous volunteer groups had) cemented those relationships. He’s now trying to make progress on securing police protection for the cemetery; currently, with no legal owner, Metro police consider vandalism, theft, dumping and other illegal activities on the site to have no victim, and therefore do not respond to reports. Harpole says, however, that the fact that neighbors let dogs run free, have bonfires, and indulge in other illegal activities there could lead to more serious damages or even injuries.

    His success has led to inquiries from preservation groups in other states, asking for advice on how to gather an active volunteer group (“I don’t know, it just happened”) and how to organize similar projects. Harpole is putting together an outline based on Eastern, but acknowledges that neighboring states Indiana, Ohio and Illinois are “light years ahead of Kentucky in cemetery preservation.”

    So could Eastern Cemetery somehow be released from its legal predicament, or is it destined to continue to exist apart from the rest of the city that surrounds it? “We’d need an attorney to fight,” says Harpole, to change the legal status. “But we have to be careful with what we wish for. If we were granted the property, it could be that the families could come back at us.” At some point, the cemetery will need a state legislator champion to create a modification or an exception clause to the pertinent statutes.

    How You Can Help Eastern

    Eastern Cemetery is full of natural resources: mistletoe, hickory nuts, chestnuts, pine cones and grape vines are just the start. Volunteers use these materials from the cemetery to create crafts to raise funds. Grapevine wreaths and more will be for sale at the RJ Theineman Arts & Crafts Fair, Sunday, September 14.

    November 12, get out to the Friends of Eastern Cemetery Comedy Caravan Benefit Night. Door prizes and a silent auction have been added to the schedule for the night, as well.

    Starting right now, you can vote for Harpole and Eastern in an Eagle Rare Bourbon contest to acknowledge people making a difference. First prize wins $50,000 for its cause, and runners-up win $5,000 each. Anything would be “wonderful,” says Harpole, so voting each day may help get this volunteer group some much-needed support.

    And, of course, everyone is welcome to visit the cemetery on Sundays and join the volunteer group. Skilled, unskilled, it doesn’t matter. Plenty of work needs to be done and progress is being made.

    Harpole says he now realizes that he “accidentally did something that helps people. A nice community is forming. And I now know what it means to the families. People come straight from church in nice clothes and give us hugs, no matter how sweaty and filthy we are. It’s fulfilling to work to improve the property and it puts things into perspective in life. I don’t sweat the small stuff.”

    Photo: Friends of Eastern Cemetery

    Kachina Shaw's picture

    About Kachina Shaw

    A transplanted Hawkeye, I've now lived in Louisville longer than any other city. Can't live without: my husband and fur babies, coal-black coffee, peanut M&Ms, sunflowers, monthly vacations, books, walking paths, massage and a big purse.

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