Concerned citizens hire attorney, organize meetings
After discovering Zion Lutheran Cemetery in Pershing hadn’t been mowed for a while – and then learning its non-profit association has been dissolved – a group is raising concerns about the cemetery’s future.
About 20 have joined together for three discussions, and have hired an attorney to develop a road map for the cemetery’s management and upkeep.
The group, which includes neighbors and those who have family buried in the cemetery, is offering another meeting to invite those concerned to learn more and discuss operations concerns.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” said attorney AJ Sickmann, who is representing the concerned citizens. “There’s a group of really good people who care and want to make sure it moves forward.”
The gathering will start at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 3, at Zion Lutheran Church, 1151 S. Germantown Road, in the community also known as East Germantown.
Although the church and the cemetery are adjoining, the church does not have jurisdiction in the matter because the two entities were legally separated years ago, said Steve Slonaker.
Slonaker is a Wayne County resident who has become involved this year to find long-term solutions. Slonaker has family buried in the cemetery, and some of his ancestors had served in leadership roles there a long time ago.
Slonaker said the cemetery has always been a good place for his family and had been well-maintained. However, earlier this year, someone who’s served on the cemetery board contacted Slonaker, saying the mowing crew had not been paid and thus could not continue.
A group of “very gracious” neighbors including Greg Bonwell, Steve Sourbeer and Terry Bertsch volunteered to take on the mowing that week, Slonaker said, and then the idea came to organize a meeting to see what’s going on.
They first approached town officials to see what East Germantown’s responsibilities might be for the cemetery, and if there were none, if council has the authority to re-form a cemetery board.
Sickmann, who serves as East Germantown’s attorney, investigated the matter and learned that the town does not have jurisdictional control of the cemetery. Slonaker said the cemetery is outside the town’s limits.
After determining the town is disconnected from the process, Sickmann then was hired to assist the group of concerned citizens with the legal process. He is a partner in Boston Bever Forrest Cross & Sickmann law firm, which has offices in Cambridge City and Richmond.
Sickmann has been looking at applicable statutes, and working with his colleague, Bob Bever, who serves as the attorney for Jackson Township, to see if the township has jurisdiction or another independent entity can be created to take over operations.
“We’re hoping to put a legal road map together to figure out the next steps,” Sickmann said.
Slonaker said he doesn’t want the cemetery to be under the jurisdiction of the township trustee if possible.
Slonaker has talked with Jackson Township Trustee Lyndon Wicker, and he appreciates that Wicker has been very cooperative and interested in finding a solution.
However, Slonaker said township trustees often take on abandoned cemeteries, which he doesn’t consider the Pershing cemetery to be, because it continues to have new burials.
Trustees have other responsibilities that require their time, such as helping provide basic needs for the poor, Slonaker said, and being in charge of a cemetery means being on call nearly 24-7 because funeral homes need quick answers to finalize arrangements.
Slonaker said the group’s early research has “developed into a fairly significant concern.”
The Indiana Secretary of State’s website shows that The Lutheran Cemetery Foundation of Pershing, Indiana, a nonprofit corporation, was created on Aug. 11, 1970, but was dissolved by the state and went inactive as of Feb. 5, 2021.
Sickmann confirmed that the board has been dissolved since it didn’t complete the state’s required business entity filings.
The last business entity report was filed Nov. 8, 2018, according to the website.
A business entity report was due Aug. 31, 2020, and the reports for 2020/2021 and 2022/2023 are due.
Trisha Collins Taylor of Cambridge City is listed as president and Dustin Taylor is listed as secretary, according to the database. The 2018 filing showed both Taylors lived at the same address.
At that time, Taylor’s report included five additional board members. Three lived in Cambridge City, one in Pershing and one in New Castle.
The new group of concerned citizens has learned that the board hasn’t met since 2019 and those members hadn’t received financial reports from even before that time, Slonaker said.
Their concerns now include:
*Are the records protected and secure, regarding graves, burials and plots?
*Why has there been a lack of communication between cemetery leadership and board members?
Slonaker said several people have attended all three meetings and stayed engaged in discussions, and nine already have agreed to be on a re-formed board. That process could include determining current bylaws and auditing the cemetery’s financial standing.
Slonaker, who said he’s the longtime secretary/treasurer of West Grove Cemetery in Centerville, said some cemetery leadership issues are not unique to Pershing.
Many rural cemeteries are struggling to find volunteers to join cemetery associations for very important jobs, he said. In addition to financial matters, they handle the buying and selling of plots, burials and maintenance.
When families move away, they sometimes lose contact with their family cemetery, and some generations have become less engaged while they are focused on working and raising their children. Thus, lists of prospective donors keep decreasing, raising worries about long-term tending of those sacred spaces.
“It’s a very important thing to do,” Slonaker said about keeping Zion Lutheran Cemetery operational. “Other generations before us did and we should be able to do it.”