Tuesday, June 1, 2004

'This is disgraceful'

Memorial Day visitors to historic Northside cemetery shed tears, express outrage at signs of neglect and vow to hold those in charge accountable

By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer

NORTHSIDE - On Memorial Day, when the gravesites of veterans become emotional shrines, dozens of Greater Cincinnati family members wandered through the overgrown grass of the abandoned Wesleyan Cemetery searching for loved ones and answers.

Wading through waist-high grass, Johnny Barron searches for his brother-in-law's grave at Wesleyan Cemetery.
(Melissa Heatherly photo)
The 24-acre cemetery off Colerain Avenue has been at the center of legal disputes for years, but supporters of the once-pristine cemetery vowed Monday to hold Cincinnati city officials accountable for complying with city ordinances on maintaining abandoned property.

"It's in reprehensible condition," said Helen Fornash of Fort Mitchell, who spent part of her Memorial Day weekend chopping down tall weeds that had grown over the grave site of her brother - one of six family members buried among 17,000 graves at Wesleyan, which includes more than 2,000 war veterans.

Pat Jaeger, president of the Friends of Wesleyan Cemetery, gazed at the frustrated and distraught family members walking though the cemetery and said "the pain I'm seeing here today is incredible."

"I saw some people drive into the cemetery, open their car door and burst into tears just looking at this mess," said Jaeger, who has family buried at the cemetery. "This is disgraceful."

And dangerous for some.

map Sheila Wong of Batavia said she almost fell into an open grave hidden from view by the tall grass while looking for the tombstones of one of the four family members she has buried at Wesleyan.

"I'm devastated and outraged. The war veterans shed their blood for all of us and this should not be allowed to happen, especially on Memorial Day," said Wong.

The cemetery, which dates to 1842 and includes graves of veterans from almost every American war since the Civil War, has been the target of lawsuits and disputes for years.

Last month an attorney for the state reached an agreement with the caretaker of Wesleyan Cemetery that will allow for cleanup of the property by supporters and city officials until the issue of who is in charge is resolved.

In a lawsuit filed in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro is fighting to remove Robert Merkle as trustee. Merkle is in charge of the cemetery after being released from prison in November after spending 18 months for stealing $93,000 from the cemetery's trust.

The case is set for trial in December, but in the meantime, the Friends of Wesleyan Cemetery, a nonprofit group that took over the cemetery's care when Merkle was in prison, wants authority to keep the cemetery well-groomed.


E-mail mclark@enquirer.com

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