With shovels, rakes and shears in hand, dozens of volunteers came in droves despite an early morning chill Saturday to restore the once-beautiful Gilbert Memorial Park Cemetery to its former grandeur.
To view a gallery of photos from the cleanup, click here:
The sounds of weed whackers and lawnmowers filled the air of the North Baton Rouge cemetery for hours as nearly 150 volunteers worked to clean up the grounds.
“Out of the anger for the conditions of our loved ones’ final resting places, we were able to bring beauty and honor to this historic place,” said Elouise Paulfrey, a Together Baton Rouge volunteer.
Gilbert cemetery, located at 5600 Greenwell Springs Road, has become the focus of local leaders and civic organizations who say the cemetery has fallen into a deplorable state of neglect.
Families have complained of large amounts of trash littering the grounds, severely overgrown weeds and grass and missing headstones. Some families have said they think strangers have been buried in their relatives’ plots.
After years of investigations and numerous complaints from relatives of people buried in Gilbert, the Louisiana Cemetery Board filed three lawsuits in 19th Judicial District Court against the cemetery’s owners and its overseer, Lymus Washington, for operating without a license during the past eight years.
The next step is finding a receiver to take over managing the cemetery, said Together Baton Rouge leader Edgar Cage.
Saturday’s movement, organized by Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis and Together Baton Rouge, was a gesture to show prospective receivers that the community is committed to keeping the cemetery maintained, Cage said.
Collins-Lewis said the Rev. Leo Cyrus of New Hope Baptist Church, which is situated near Gilbert Cemetery, has expressed interest in having his church become the receiver.
Cage also said those involved in restoring the cemetery are working to form the Gilbert Families Association, which will work with the receiver and help collect annual maintenance fees from families.
“From this day forward, we are committed to this cemetery, so it can again be a place where people can rest in peace and their families can visit them with dignity,” Cage said.
Randi Eames, 14, raked the debris scattered across graves into mounds for bagging and tossing out. Eames said it’s been “horrible” to see people’s resting places in such an embarrassing state.
“To help out, restore some dignity, it makes my soul feel good,” she said.
Carl Wilford said in the 1980s, the cemetery was pristine, and he needed then only to fix up his relative’s graves on their birthdays by adding flowers or scrubbing their headstones.
But gradually, conditions worsened, and he found himself in Gilbert monthly to cut down weeds and mow the graves, sometimes walking through knee-high weeds to get to the plots, he said.
Wilford spent hours Saturday morning clearing car parts, beer cans and discarded headstones from a section of the cemetery, all the while hoping to find his relative’s headstone in the debris.
Several headstones were tossed into a section of woods bordering the cemetery, but the one belonging to Wilford’s mother-in-law — which vanished years back — was not among them, he said.
But even so, he smiled as he looked around the cemetery, calling the transformation “beautiful.”
“It’s a wonderful thing, it really is,” he said. “I just can’t believe the amount of people out here. You just have to thank everybody.”
Collins-Lewis agreed, calling the makeover remarkable and giving credit to those who made it happen.
“This is because of you,” Collins-Lewis told the gathered crowd of volunteers. “This is what happens when the community stands up and says, ‘We will not stand for this anymore.’”