Cemetery tangled in legal thicket

PARIS, Pa. – The legal issues surrounding the Paris Cemetery are almost as tangled as the overgrowth threatening to swallow it.

The last member of the overseeing organization, the Paris Cemetery Association, died several years ago, and the cemetery fund is nearly depleted, according to volunteer caretaker Leslie Grossmann of Paris.

Grossmann was recruited to help with the cemetery after his retirement in 2004 by Tom Vincineti, the last cemetery association member. Grossmann mowed the grass and he and another volunteer helped open and close graves.

“For a little while, we were a happy little family,” said Grossmann.

Four years ago Vincineti died, and, shortly after, the only other volunteer moved away, leaving Grossmann the last man standing.

“(Vincineti’s) wife called me and said she had some cemetery records for me,” he said. “I went over there, and she gave me everything she had – four boxes full.”

Those records included ledgers with association meeting minutes stretching back into the mid-1800s. What it didn’t include was a map of the oldest – and most visible part of the 7.5 acres – part of the cemetery.

Grossmann said the map, which included the names of those buried in the original part of the cemetery was lost in a fire in the 1930s. He would like to record the names still visible on headstones.

The original portion of the cemetery includes a large swath of graves of infants and young children who died in a influenza epidemic in the 1930s or 1940s. The upper Ohio Valley’s unique heritage is visible with headstones inscribed in Chinese, Greek, Czech, Slavic, German and Arabic. Burials date back to the 1820s and include several Revolutionary and Civil War veterans, including Medal of Honor recipient Uriah H. Brown.

Brown was a member of the 30th Ohio Infantry Co. G, out of Columbus, Ohio, during the Civil War. During the May 22, 1963, assault on Vicksburg, Miss., Brown volunteered to carry siege materials over heavily fortified ground, under enemy fire, and attempt to build a bridge over a deep ditch and set a ladder against the fort’s walls. The expectation of casualties was so high only unmarried men were allowed to volunteer for the “forlorn hope.” Brown was wounded but survived and managed to carry five other wounded men to safety.

A perpetual care fund was never established for the cemetery, and Grossmann has limped along by selling plots – which are still available for $400 each – and charging the cemetery’s $475 fee for opening and closing a grave. In the past year, there have been two burials.

Grossmann can’t afford to upgrade the equipment, including a 1961 backhoe. He estimated it would cost approximately $35,000 to purchase a new backhoe.

“It leaks diesel fuel into the oil,” he said. “Every time I use it, I have to change the oil. It’s leaking hydraulic fluid in three places.”

Grossmann built an open-sided corrugated steel shed to protect the backhoe from inclement weather in the hopes of extending its usefulness.

The cemetery’s out buildings are so old Grossmann had to demolish two – an equipment shed and a 1930s era two-seat outhouse. He replaced the shed, pouring the footer himself and erecting a pre-built shed, but now has to keep it padlocked, after the cemetery was vandalized and robbed.

In addition to vandalizing the shed, metal tools and an early 1900s-era horse-drawn buggy with brass fittings were stolen. Grossmann finally located the heavily damaged buggy at a metal recycling yard in Weirton.

In November 2010, a truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into the cemetery, causing approximately $35,000 worth of damage. Grossmann went to court to recoup the costs, and the cemetery received a judgment of $200 a month for 14 and one-half years. It was paid for a few months, but the driver, employed by a fracking industry sub-contractor, moved out of state and the court system won’t pursue judgment because no felony was involved.

Grossmann attempted to have the driver’s employer’s Texas-based insurance company cover the costs of repairs, because he was driving a company truck at the time of the accident. The insurance company claimed the truck was stolen and refused to pay the claim. Researching court records, Grossmann learned the driver was never charged with theft of an auto. By that time, the statute of limitations had expired.

With no other recourse, Grossmann recruited his daughter’s church group from the Crossroads Church in Imperial, Pa., to come and reset those stones they could. With the exception of a few hundred dollars, the cemetery never received compensation for the damage.

Grossmann would like to repair damage to the cemetery access road he alleges was caused by excavations for the Hanover Township Sewer Authority’s pumping station on the edge of the cemetery. Also, there has been damage to the road and undergrowth encouraged by a storm water outflow pipe draining onto cemetery grounds from nearby Scandola Addition.

“They should fix it,” he said. “I wouldn’t do that to someone else, I don’t understand why they think it’s OK to do that.”

A second shed is in such poor condition that Grossmann will have to demolish it soon. He wants to replace it with a humble chapel with a small cemetery office, but he estimated the cost of such a structure to be at least $9,000 – without running water and electric and doing the majority of the work himself.

“This is a country cemetery. I just want to see a small country chapel,” he said.

But first, the grass needs to be mowed. Grossmann wants some service organizations to come in and assist with the upkeep.

“How do you eat an elephant?” he asked. “One bite at a time.”

Patty Rhoades, a Paris resident living less than a mile from the cemetery, is heading up an effort to recruit more volunteers to assist Grossmann. He has turned over some cemetery records to her, and she envisions organizing a work crew to immediately address pressing maintenance needs at the cemetery.

Once that is completed, Rhoades wants to organize volunteers to research the history of the cemetery, improve the burial records and perhaps record headstone inscriptions at risk of becoming illegible.

An organizational meeting to discuss forming work crews to clear the cemetery will be held at 12:30 p.m. Friday at the Gathering Place Coffee Shop located at 127 Steubenville Pike.

Those who are unable to attend the meeting but would like to make a donation toward cemetery upkeep and improvements can send them to: Paris Cemetery, in care of First Choice America Federal Credit Union, 370 Three Springs Drive, Weirton, WV 26062.

(Wallace-Minger can be contacted at swallace@pafocus.com)