Thursday, April 27, 2000

Site may be option for buried vets

But cost of moving remains from Hillcrest cemetery is obstacle

By Allen Howard and Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ANDERSON TOWNSHIP — A new option has emerged in the ongoing struggle of the forgotten war veterans buried at embattled Hillcrest Cemetery.

        The Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery in Wayne County, near Akron, is expected to open in June. It will be the second such cemetery in Ohio for vets and will have space for 16,000 burial sites.

        But the new option has an old obstacle: money.

        Hillcrest, 14 acres on a hillside off Sutton Road in Anderson Township, is a resting place to veterans from every war from the Civil War to Vietnam. Of the 1,388 vets buried there, 849 are African-American. It was established, in part, as a home for black veterans who were denied burial elsewhere.

        The condition of grave sites at Hillcrest has been called deplorable by veterans groups and local, state and federal officials. Little has been done to rectify the problem, however, because the cemetery's ownership is unclear.

        One possible solution that surfaced this week: disinter the remains of Hillcrest vets and transport them 210 miles to Ohio Western Reserve in Rittman.

        “If someone else were footing the bill, we could provide the space,” Western Reserve Cemetery director Jeff Teas said Tuesday. “It would be a tough sell to get the tax dollars to do that, because once you did that, it would open it up for similar situations.”

        He said transportation costs fall to the deceased's family. And tracking those at Hillcrest would be extremely difficult. Vets there represent more than a dozen states, and some go back more than a century.

        Disinterment typically costs about three times the amount of a burial, said Terry Geiser, vice president and funeral director at Meyer and Geiser Funeral Home in Price Hill.

        It is the latest in a decades-long string of obstacles to adequately care for grave sites at Hillcrest, which has been plagued by vandalism, neglect and questions over ownership. No one — neither government nor individual — has stepped up to claim ownership. Current owners are listed in county records as The Hillcrest Ceme tery Association, Guy Lancaster, Roy Lancaster and Hamilton County Commissioners.

        Meanwhile, upkeep of Hillcrest has fallen to local veterans groups, Boy Scout troops, and more officially, to the Hamilton County probation department, which assigns offenders to general lawn maintenance as part of community service. Proper cleanup and restoration of headstones is estimated at $250,000. Also, some markers were washed away from their original sites. Matching them up would be difficult.

        Still, the idea of reinterring Hillcrest veterans is appealing to Bill Jayne, director of the Veterans Administration's state cemetery grants program in Washington, D.C.

        “I know from experience, burial at a national cemetery is open to any qualified veteran, so the answer is yes, they could be reinterred there (in Rittman),” Mr. Jayne said Tuesday. “The VA doesn't have any funds for transportation. That many vets, that's expensive. It's a difficult issue.”


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