AUGUSTA — A two-year project to raise, realign and clean 6,517 headstones at the Maine Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery is meant to improve the hallowed grounds of the cemetery and prevent the headstones of veterans and their families from sinking into the earth.
However, the daughter of a couple buried there, who found weeds and dirt covering their headstones because of the project, said the conditions of the cemetery were so disgraceful during a recent visit that she wanted to exhume her parents’ bodies and take them elsewhere.
That clearly isn’t the reaction officials and the contractor on the job were hoping the project would elicit from the families of those buried at the Civic Center Drive cemetery.
“It has been a great project. On the whole, it’s pretty clear the end result is going to look great when the grass has grown back in,” said David Richmond, superintendent of the Maine Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery System. “In this case, weeds grew instead of grass. It was bad. I certainly regret we weren’t able to catch the weed problem and deal with it. I think we have a plan that will take care of it in the future.”
Susan Umberger, a North Carolina resident in Maine visiting relatives, has visited her parents’ graves at the older of two Maine Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery sites in Augusta multiple times this summer.
Each time, she said, she has been upset by the conditions of Section R, where her parents are buried. Her late father, of West Rockport, flew bombing missions in World War II; and her mother was in the USO for many years. She said they chose the veterans’ cemetery in Augusta as their final resting place because of the perpetual care and beautiful upkeep.
She first visited in July and found the section where her parents are buried had been dug up for the headstone rehabilitation project, which she said is understandable. She returned in late August and found it so overgrown with tall weeds she had to use her foot to dig through the weeds and dirt to expose some of the headstones.
“If I could have exhumed my parents bodies that day, I would have. That’s how I felt,” Umberger said today. “It’s not just my parents there. The men and women who served their country, and their family members, they deserve better.”
Tom Farley, of Rockport-based Farley & Son Landscaping, the contractor on the $441,000 project, acknowledges Section R, where Umberger’s parents are buried, recently was covered in crab grass and weeds, not the grass they’d hoped to grow.
He said a combination of factors, including a lack of water pressure that prevented workers from watering the grass, a period of warm weather and a time of year more favorable for growing weeds than grass resulted in unwanted weed growth.
He said the section has since been reseeded, but it’ll still take a couple of weeks before that section starts to look like a good lawn.
“I understand completely” why Umberger was upset, Farley said. “Ultimately, you’re breaking a few eggs to make an omelet. It’s messy for a while, but it will end up looking good. We want to make sure it’s right.”
Umberger said today she visited the site again that morning and was pleased to see an irrigation system running on the section. However, she noted, some weeds more than a foot high are still there.
“It still needs a lot of help, but I can see they’ve made an effort with the irrigation,” she said.
She said the section of cemetery where her parents are buried has not been in good condition for a long time, and she blamed a lack of sufficient state funding for upkeep of the grounds.
The headstone rehabilitation project is funded entirely by a grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The funds will allow workers to raise and realign 6,517 headstones at the cemetery. Richmond said there were 15,324 headstones at the cemetery as of last month. He said state workers had already raised and realigned another 4,000 headstones, leaving just a few thousand left to be rehabilitated.
The heavy headstones sink into the ground and can be moved by crabgrass and frost heaves.
He said GPS is being used to document the proper location of each headstone, which is dug up and moved to the side so a trench can be dug and filled with crushed rock, a filter fabric and a plastic tray. The tray, which is meant to allow drainage while preventing the stones from sinking back into the ground, is then buried and the headstone placed on top of it.
The turf surrounding the graves is removed, loam is placed and the whole area is reseeded with grass.
Other than the issue with weeds in Section R, Richmond said, officials have been happy with the work Farley & Son’s crew of nine to 12 workers has done.
He said the work is expected to be completed this fall.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647