A growing concern

James Harper, of Front Royal, stands in high grass in a section of the Prospect Hill Cemetery in Front Royal on Wednesday. Harper and other area residents are concerned about maintenance of the cemetery. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL — Prospect Hill Cemetery has served Front Royal for 150 years, but some area residents said a cemetery in disrepair does little to honor its history.

Those arriving at the gate on East Prospect Street can expect to see tall grass growing among the headstones, said Front Royal resident James Harper, who visits weekly.

“Most troubling,” he said, “is that markers are down and they’re just sinking into the ground. They need to do something.”

Dating to 1868, the cemetery is where Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops took their first good look at Front Royal on May 23, 1862.

The third stop along the Virginia Civil War Trails tour of the Battle of Front Royal, it honors several generations of an ever-changing community. Family and friends visit with flowers and tributes to remember good times with loved ones. While there, they might also appreciate the view of a town that each, at one point, called home.

A deer wanders around Prospect Hill Cemetery in Front Royal on Wednesday. Rich Cooley/Daily

But on a recent visit to remember her son, her husband and her parents, Doris Robbins, of Front Royal, said she was reduced to tears.

“When you buy a lot, you’re supposed to have maintenance forever,” she said. “It really looked like an abandoned property.”

Robbins and Harper said their loved ones are buried in a newer section of the cemetery they agreed is better maintained, but they have to travel through an older section to get there.

Recognizing recent community concerns, head groundskeeper Joe Grimsley stressed the cemetery is far from neglected.

When fully staffed, his crew has one part-time and three full-time employees. They have four tractors for mowing grass along the rows and landscaping tools for cutting back weeds.

A toppled headstone in Prospect Hill Cemetery is one concern area residents have expressed about the 40-acre property in southern Front Royal they fear has been under -maintained. Rich Cooley/Daily

Thursday he and his crew were there. The temperature was warm, but not stifling, and the sun was out. For summer, conditions were ideal. In the morning, crew members weed eat, and in the afternoon they mow. In a day, two of them can knock out one of the cemetery’s 21 sections. In a week of no interruptions, he said they can canvass the entire 40 acres on Prospect Hill.

But few days go by without interruption, he said. They can’t weed eat during funerals, and they can’t mow in the rain. Heat makes it tough to work long hours, and the sun helps the grass grow more quickly.

Lately he’s been short-staffed, and two of his tractors were out of commission.

In a newer section mowed on Sunday, cut grass still remained on Thursday, browning in the sun among weeds yet to be sheared.

It would be tough for any crew of four to complete in a week, he said, but when he’s short-staffed, it’s impossible.

Most important to the ground keeping staff are reliable workers who follow instruction, and recently having shed himself of unreliable employees, Grimsley said he’s hopeful for the future of his staff.

“There’s nobody that cares about what this cemetery looks like more than I do,” he said.

Since the mid-1990s, Prospect Hill Cemetery Foundation has maintained the cemetery under Grimsley’s leadership. Previously, Turner Robertshaw Funeral Home was in charge and, before that, Maddox Funeral Home.

Many, though, still associate Maddox Funeral Home with the cemetery, and when they noticed the grass and weeds creeping up on Grimsley’s team this summer, that’s who they contacted expressing their concerns.

Robbins called on Tuesday and was told she was the 12th caller to talk with one funeral home employee. Other employees had also fielded numerous calls, but Robbins was told the funeral home had no advice on remedying the situation of landscaping.

She and Harper also attempted reaching the foundation’s board of directors but as of Wednesday had not spoken with any of its members.

“Somebody needs to do something,” Robbins said, “and I don’t know what the answer is.”

“No other cemetery looks like this and they’ve had the same rain,” she said. ” … Maybe they have bigger, better crews.”

Aware of some recent concerns, Grimsley pointed out other area cemeteries have flat grave markers that make mowing easier than it is as Prospect Hill, where headstones of varying heights are sometimes surrounded by tributes of flowers and other items the cemetery has asked the community not to place on the graves because they disrupt the grounds keeping process.

He indicated chunks of cotton stuffing that tumbled away from one grave marker. “This was a stuffed animal memorial,” he said. “See what happens, it makes a mess.”

Instead, he suggested a landscaped memorial that allows for decoration without obstructing weed removal. He also invited visitors to purchase in-ground stone vases, which rest above the ground and still allow his crew access to the area around headstones.

For Harper, who admitted sneaking into the cemetery to mow it himself, the job of maintaining the land is too big for two or three men with a couple of tractors.

For one thing, the ground is sloped, he said. “That’s why it’s called Prospect Hill.”

For another, Grimsley doesn’t just mow and attack persistent weeds. He digs burial plots himself, serves as pallbearer and fills in graves after funerals. He also sets the stones and maintains them.

“I think he probably does a great job for what he does,” Harper said. “[But] one man just can’t do it all.”

Grimsley said he would consider community offers of help, though he’s also concerned about the liability of untrained individuals injuring themselves on cemetery property or damaging headstones and other memorials.

Instead, he said, volunteers helping in ways not restricted for insurance reasons is a prospect worth pursuing.

“It’s something we’re looking into,” he said.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com