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Abandoned cemeteries a matter of grave concern

"The bones of Northwest pioneers lie in graves all over Washington. While most rest in peace, some unmaintained cemeteries have been dug up and paved over for the sake of urban development.But the dead can rest easy again – a law enacted this year ends that practice, prohibiting developers from simply building over old cemeteries that no one seems to own or care for. Sponsored by state Rep. Pat Lantz (D-26th District), the bill sailed through the Legislature in April and was approved by Governor Gary Locke.“This was my sterling success of the last session,” Lantz said, “but it was the last thing I thought I’d do – I mean, protecting a lost cemetery out there in the salal, or in someone’s wheat field.”Port Orchard resident Andi MacDonald, who has studied genealogy for two decades, was the law’s catalyst, in part over concern for a Bainbridge Island cemetery she believed – incorrectly, as it turned out – was uncared for.“Cemeteries are disappearing around the state at an alarming rate,” MacDonald said, “and tracking them down is horrendous.” In Kitsap County, there are 60 to 70 cemeteries. Twenty are still accepting new burials, and a half dozen are abandoned.MacDonald’s new group, the Washington State Cemeteries Association, hopes to find caretakers for lost grave sites. Vines, shrubs and other vegetation “grow like wildfire” in the Northwest, MacDonald said, and quickly consume unkempt burial plots.The effort began when the city of Snohomish planned to build a senior center and youth facility on land that was host to a historic but disused cemetery. The law previously allowed a cemetery authority, like a caretaker, overseer or owner, to do what they wanted with the property, without regard to the deceased or their living relatives.Two Snohomish residents with ancestors in the cemetery fought in court for its preservation. By that time, though, the grounds had already been partially paved over and a house had been built on the property.The cemetery authority claimed it was not building atop bodies because they had long since decomposed. Even the headstones had disappeared. Some had been stolen, and the local historical society had moved others across the street.The new legislation requires a court order to “undedicate” a cemetery, once all human remains have been disinterred. And very old cemeteries that were not previously registered with county officials are slowly being put on the map.“This is exactly what we wanted,” MacDonald said. Until this week, MacDonald’s group believed Island Center Cemetery on Bainbridge Island was among those in disuse. No one is paying taxes on the lot, located off Miller Road, and the state had no record of an owner or caretaker for the site.Without this information, and on the assumption that the cemetery was therefore legally abandoned, MacDonald was planning to file paperwork with the state to take over its care.But the cemetery is far from foresaken – Bainbridge resident Eddie Graham acts as caretaker, and the site accepts about three burials each year, primarily for Island Center residents.Graham took over the caretaker responsibilities from his neighbors, who retired. A gardener regularly mows the cemetery, and he rakes “thousands of leaves.”MacDonald was pleased to learn that the cemetery is cared for, but said Graham should register the property with the state. This will put the cemetery on permanent government records, so it cannot legally be destroyed or built over in the future.Cemeteries in the Kitsap area that have been identified as abandoned are located in Poulsbo, Hansville, Port Orchard, Kingston and Little Boston."

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