The physical toll was apparent as volunteers, with sweat running down their faces in the muggy morning sunshine, worked with gloves, shovels, rakes and pitchforks. The aching muscles could be relieved with aspirin or some balm, and a bit of relaxation. The emotional toll, however, was much less obvious. That toll could run deeper than a few sore muscles, and it could last longer. Aspirin would not help.
On Saturday, a few dozen volunteers turned out to clean up Ruskin Memorial Park. The nonprofit association that operates the community-owned cemetery normally holds clean-up events in February and October, but now they had no choice. The state of Florida has cited the cemetery for numerous violations, all contained in a citation composed of a three-inch tall stack of paper. The cemetery, a nonprofit organization running on a shoestring budget, is forced to pay a $2,000 fine and get the grounds into compliance immediately. Everyone involved in this place, a place created by community leaders to ensure respect for the dead, is a volunteer.
“We have been fined and if we don’t clean up it is going to get heavier,” said cemetery volunteer Debbie Bonebrake.
Mother’s Day weekend was a tough time to have to clean up a cemetery. One grave was overflowing with artificial flowers and balloons labeled, “Happy Mother’s Day.” The woman had passed away 12 years ago, but she was clearly not forgotten. What would be forgotten are the decorations for that special day. Within a week, perhaps two, those decorations would soon become so much trash littering the hallowed ground, the balloons deflated, the flowers ragged and faded. They would be left for someone else to clean up. The reality is, there is no “someone else”. There are only the volunteers. Perhaps that family would be different; perhaps they planned to clean it up later. But not many actually do.
“This is hard,” said one volunteer with tears streaming down her face. “We don’t want to do this but we have to do it. The state says we have to. I wish people would realize that.”
The woman also asked that if people wanted to build memorials for loved ones, doing something at home would be better. It would certainly be easier on those like her who have to clean it up. She doesn’t want to remove the decorations, but she has no choice. For her and the other volunteers, the emotional toll is deep. She knows love and grief play a part in what has happened to the cemetery and that makes the task so much more difficult. She hopes people understand, but she wonders about others.
“It’s almost like a game to some people,” she said. “Please do this at home instead of here.”
The grave of a five-year-old boy who died decades ago was elaborately, certainly lovingly, decorated with bricks, landscaping rocks, home-made ceramics, toys, a marble sheep attached to a deeply-buried and heavy concrete base, and even solar-powered lights. It would all have to go. No one wanted to do that, but there was no choice. The state allows each grave to have an approved headstone and one vase of flowers. If the plot were big enough, perhaps a marble bench would be acceptable. But not bricks, not the trees that some people have planted, not the toys or the landscaping rocks, not the solar-powered lights or the beer bottles found by some of the other graves.
“There are solar lights; there is solar music out here!” Bonebrake said. “There are beer bottles and wind chimes. People have planted their own trees. For many months, our mower was a volunteer and they’ve been out here 10 or 12 hours trying to work around all of this.”
Community leaders chose an appropriate place for the cemetery so many decades ago. While not without problems, it is an area of rare beauty, located on the bluff with the Little Manatee River quietly flowing by 30 feet below. It is a place for contemplation, for introspection, for quietly grieving the loss of a loved one. It is a place to remember them. But on some days it has an almost circus-like aura with the many extravagantly decorated graves. Grief is a personal experience as is how it is dealt with. For those seeking introspection, an elaborately decorated grave next to their loved one may be difficult to take.
On the young boy’s grave, the volunteers cleaned it up, and, as they finished, one woman carefully, respectfully, replanted artificial flowers next to the headstone. It was the most she could do. Other graves, however, went beyond what the volunteers could handle. On one grave, someone had laid a cement slab that had three-foot tall rebar sticking out of it.
“It’s almost as though the person is trying to build their own mausoleum,” Bonebrake said. “They can’t do that. We can’t do that. We have families who have threatened to take us to court, but there is nothing we can do about it. It is not us making the decisions here, the state is making the decisions.”
The slab was beyond the means of the shovels, but somehow the thick cement would have to be removed. Somehow the grave would have to be returned to its original state, without the rebar sticking out.
As the teams of volunteers moved slowly through the cemetery cleaning up what the state has mandated must be cleaned up, a family could be seen in another part of the expansive cemetery, decorating the grave of loved one.
“It would be nice if people put this much effort into the living, huh?” said Tony, one of the volunteers, referring to some of the elaborate, makeshift graves. And then, he picked up his shovel and solemnly resumed his work, work that showed respect for the dead but also for the law.
According to Debbie Bonebrake, with a typical plot fee of approximately $850, Ruskin Memorial Park, located at the end of 1st Street SW near Manatee Drive, is one of the least expensive cemeteries in the area. Approximately 4,000 sites have been sold; the cemetery is currently roughly half-filled. Bonebrake is hoping relatives will consider making an annual donation of $50 to help with the ongoing cleanup efforts.
For more information about the cemetery, call 813-645-1144 or email email@example.com and tax-deductible donations can be made through the Ruskin Woman’s Club Cemetery Fund at the BMO Bank in Apollo Beach. For information, call 813-649-0400. In with their great respect for the dead, cemetery volunteers have no choice but to respect the law. They hope others in the community will step forward to help keep both obligations.