CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — At the entrance of the Czech National Cemetery, freshly cut grass and flower beds welcome visitors as they enter the burial site that symbolizes the city’s Czech heritage.
But farther inside, patches of grass and weeds cover tombstones, making them unnoticeable at first, a visit by The Gazette found. Headstones are tilted forward and others are sinking. Cracked benches line the pathway.
Kathy O’Neil, who has family members buried in the cemetery, said it looked as if some lots have been untouched in months.
“It’s just devastating,” O’Neil said. “It’s so heartbreaking to see our loved ones are buried here and the military and you know, paying respects to everyone (at a place) that it’s left in disrepair.“
Cedar Rapids has a strong Czech presence, and the Czech Cemetery, at 2200 C St. SW, is one a few places that celebrate its heritage, alongside the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library and the Czech Village.
Families who buy cemetery plots are responsible for their upkeep, including to headstones that were damaged in the 2020 derecho.
“While the cemetery is doing some of the caretaker things by having mowing done and everything, it’s up to the lot orders to maintaining their lots in good and neat conditions,” said cemetery board president Jeanne Vogt.
According to the bylaws of the Czech National Cemetery, plot owners are responsible for:
__ Maintaining lots in good and neat condition
__ Planting and maintaining flowers
__ Remove decorations when public issue is noticed
__ Watering, weeding of flower beds and leaf removal
Although the cemetery does not offer floral services, Vogt said it receives deliveries from floral companies that people have ordered from and will take the flowers to the gravesite.
“These drivers have no idea where these flowers are going to go in the cemetery,” Vogt said. “So that’s up to us, then the name should be marked on there that we take it out and put it on the lot that it’s supposed to go.”
O’Neil has a strong connection to the Czech Cemetery, tracing back to when her grandfather worked there as a sexton. After her grandfather, her dad took over as the sexton for 40 years, retiring in the 1980s. Today, her parents, grandparents and other family members all have been buried there.
While growing up on C Street SW, O’Neil has memories of her father working at the cemetery. She said her father would have one or two full-time people to help with the maintenance of the cemetery or grave digging.
“My dad would walk up here every day, every morning and every night to lock and unlock the gate because there used to be front gates,” O’Neil said. “He managed the cemetery for decades, and it was in pristine order.”
O’Neil said she has stopped by the cemetery over the past 10 to 15 years when she visits from Minnesota.
The cemetery was established as the Bohemian National Cemetery in 1895 and later changed to the Czech National Cemetery. According to the bylaws of the cemetery, its board is required to maintain the property in good condition. Part of that includes hiring a caretaker who is in charge of hiring help for the care and maintenance at wages approved by the board.
Vogt said the cemetery has a contract with a mowing company but had issues with communication during the spring.
When the board called the company and asked them to mow in May, Vogt said the company never showed up and didn’t follow up on calls inquiring when it would mow the cemetery. Later on, Vogt said, the board found the owner of the company had an issue that prevented him from doing the job and had to find someone else.
But the board hired someone who had just started a mowing business and may have taken on too much at the cemetery.
“And he tried, and he only had one mower, come to find out,” Vogt said. “And so he would have to come back and re-mow, and then the grass was getting way ahead of him. And the meantime, the original company then came back to start mowing, and they were very apologetic.”
The funds to pay the mowing company come from the sale of plots and donations.
“We try to have of this contract every year. We do bids on the mowing jobs; we don’t just hand them to the first person to come along, but we check the prices every year,“ Vogt said. ”And these people had done it for three years and you know, it seemed to be fine, but we really had this issue thrown at us this spring.”
The cemetery currently does not have a caretaker, and the board is working on fulfilling that position.
For monuments that are cracked, sunken or tilted, Vogt said the responsibility for its maintenance falls on the plot owners.
“They should have a decent foundation put in in the first place that was going to hold it for quite a while,” Vogt said. “So whatever monument place they’re getting their stones from could probably also put the foundation in when they’re placing the stone and know where it’s going to be.”
Additionally, Vogt said that the gravestones are the individual’s responsibility and are responsible for any damages.
“When we had the derecho go through here, and maybe their stones were chipped or knocked over by the trees or whatever, the people’s household insurance could take care of their stone because that’s their property,” Vogt said.
Vogt said that benches are either donated, bought by plot owners, or put in by the board. The board, however, is responsible only for the maintenance of its benches.
The board also works with volunteers to help clean the grounds.
“We have cleanup days; we have those people that are really interested leave their names with us for volunteers,” Vogt said. “And when we have projects, then we can call them, some of them who live close by too, so it works out really good.”
Vogt said the board “works from the heart,” and appreciates those who donate and volunteer to help with maintenance.
“A lot of people like to make donations to the cemetery, and half of our board, as it is, this is their future home,” Vogt said.