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Homeowners act as stewards for nearby cemeteries across the state

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Monday, November 7, 2011 - 8:00 am

INDIANAPOLIS — Gary Haskett is a practical man, a man of business (he runs a body shop), and he doesn't give much thought to his final resting place.

He's 65 and smokes and has begun shopping around a little, but he's not the type of guy to be swayed by oak groves or serenity gardens or any other cemetery sales-speak. Haskett focuses on price.

"When I'm gone, I'm gone," he says without sentiment.

But when it comes to the graveyard next door to the three-bedroom Warren Township ranch he shares with his wife, Carol, somehow Haskett feels proprietary.

It's called Brady Cemetery, and it contains the remains of two Bradys, two Baxters, two Silvers and a Swift. Its most recent body, Henry Brady's, was buried in 1887.

"Those people — I don't really know about them — but they were your early settlers around here," Haskett said. "There's respect due."

The Hasketts mow the cemetery's grass, asking nothing in return. On those rare times when a deceased's, say, great-great-great-great grandniece from Ohio stops by on a genealogy mission, Haskett takes down her name and contact information in case another long-lost relative stops by.

Once, Haskett shooed from the cemetery a couple coupling behind some bushes ("We're having lunch!" they shouted, but Haskett has ears).

Thousands of small cemeteries like the Brady dot Indiana, often the last remnants of a family farm long ago sold off and subdivided.

Some have suffered from neglect or worse, but in other cases, concerned neighbors feel an obligation to them and act as stewards.

In his Washington Township home, John "Pete" Peterson keeps a supply of American flags and always has a fresh one to plant at the grave of the Civil War soldier (James Bradley, Co. F Eighth Indiana Cavalry) laid low in the Newby Cemetery a few feet from Peterson's basketball hoop.

Vandals have plagued small, unguarded cemeteries for decades, which is why Peterson, a stockbroker who has lived next door to the Newby with his wife and sons for 13 years, makes it a point to stay home Halloween night and keep his eyes open. "I don't want some knuckleheads coming over there and knocking stuff over," Peterson said.

Sam Sutphin's property outside Zionsville borders a pioneer cemetery that a decade ago was disappearing, its headstones broken off and being swallowed up by the earth. Among the dead: John Harmon and Harmon's Native American wife, Philadelphia. The Harmons lived on the banks of Eagle Creek before Indiana was a state. Their graves "were some of the last pieces of history left around here," said Sutphin, "and I was charmed by that."

The charm was lost on his neighbors, however, and on his township trustee. Sutphin, a venture capitalist, went it alone. He paid for the cemetery's restoration out of his own pocket, some $2,000. "I can't remember that guy's name who I found to do the work," Sutphin said, "but he was an expert. He looked like a bouncer at a biker bar — big beard, super grungy."

Pioneer cemeteries are by law the responsibility of township trustees, who care for them to varying degrees. Some cut the grass a few times a summer and leave it at that.

But in some townships, such as Washington and Warren, the trustees have gone further.

In the 1990s, Washington Township spent about $100,000 to repair headstones in its half-dozen pioneer cemeteries (the headstone restorer "was a trip, had one of those beards, looked like one of the ZZ Top guys," Peterson recalled); the trustee also researched precisely who's buried in the cemeteries.

"Every so often we get a call from someone coming through who wants to know where their great-great-great grandfather is," said Frank Short, the current trustee, "and we have an inventory and can direct them."

In Warren, trustee Jeff Bennett hired graduate students from IUPUI to research his dead. They discovered, among other things, that there was good reason Henry Brady's headstone was taller than the others — the man was a doer: By the time he died (after 90 years, eight months and 17 days, it says on his headstone), he'd farmed, run a tavern, platted the town of Cumberland and served in the state legislature.

The plan is to use some of the grad students' research to help teach Indiana history to local fourth-graders.

Bennett also set about refurbishing some headstones, hiring the ZZ Top/biker bar bouncer, who turns out to be neither.

The man's name is John "Walt" Walters, and he is "amazing," said Bennett. "It's like art what he does."

Walters is 55 years old and hasn't cut his hair or shaved since 1992. His favorite musician is John Prine, although he likes ZZ Top all right.

He lives with his wife, Micki, in a house built in 1830 on an acre and a half at the edge of tiny Columbia in Fayette County. He calls his place Waltstock and plans to be buried there, his and Micki's ashes mixed together in a sculpture he has yet to dream up.

He's artistic, said Micki. "He can sculpt, he can draw, he can whittle, he can do chain saw stuff, he can do about anything he wants to do."

At one point, Walters wanted a job with the Fayette County Highway Department, and he got it. The job involved cutting the pioneer cemeteries' grass. He was appalled at the cemeteries' condition: broken headstones, illegible inscriptions — forgotten forebears. Walters went to the local library and studied up on the pioneers and also on how to repair old headstones. He's a quick study.

He went into the restoration business full time in 1996 and these days is in demand throughout the Midwest.

Old cemeteries, in Walters' view, are more prized than they were when he started in the business. "The awareness is out on the importance of these cemeteries — that's where we come from," he said. "These are the people who carved out the way for us."

Walters refers to a law passed by the Indiana General Assembly in 1999 that stiffened penalties for vandalizing cemeteries and kept farmers 100 feet away from them — there were instances of them removing headstones and plowing right over graves.

Vandalism, especially, "was a common problem," said Markt Lytle, a third-generation funeral director from Madison and former state representative who sponsored the bill. "Since we raised fines," Lytle said, "a lot of it has been cut out."

The Brady Cemetery testifies to that. Gary Haskett recalled that 20 years ago, when he moved next door, the cemetery was a mess. Stones were tipped over, and empty beer cans were strewn about.

The biggest turnaround may be Lyons Cemetery in Johnson County, where all 150 stones had been knocked over and, as of January, all had been repaired.

"It's all about respecting the people who came before you," said Lytle.

Graves still get dug up in the name of progress, however, and it's legal. In the 1800s, when it was laid out, Whitesell Cemetery was surrounded by rural quiet. But 150 years later, in 2007, an interstate ran past it, a busy interstate, one that needed widening. Thirty-three bodies were removed, and the interchange of I-69 and I-465 was improved.

The dead were taken to huge Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis and buried again. They rest in Crown Hill's "pioneer" section, near the remains from two other relocated cemeteries.