Plot owners vote to establish new expanded board

While questions about oversight of Zion Lutheran Cemetery are being raised, a growing group of plot owners and concerned relatives of those already buried are taking actions they hope will ensure the historic cemetery’s future.

On Oct. 3, a few dozen members of the two constituencies – including some who are in both groups – packed the fellowship room at the adjacent Zion Lutheran Church in Pershing for an emergency meeting.

Guests first had the opportunity to ask questions of Indiana State Police Detective Andy Wandersee, who acknowledged to Western Wayne News that an investigation into the cemetery’s management in recent years is beginning, but did not want to share additional details publicly at this time.

Questions about cemetery management began after neighbors of the cemetery in the 1100 block of South Germantown Road, and area residents who stop by their loved ones’ final resting places, noticed when grass grew abnormally tall earlier this summer.

They were told that the mowing crew had stopped work because of a lack of payment, said Steve Slonaker, who facilitated the Oct. 3 meeting.

A few neighbors quickly volunteered to start grounds maintenance while more information was sought about cemetery operations.

Concerned residents contacted town officials to learn what the town’s responsibilities might be for the cemetery. After research, East Germantown’s attorney AJ Sickmann determined the community doesn’t have jurisdiction to run the cemetery.

Seeking more answers, a growing group of concerned citizens hired Sickmann to represent their interests and determine how operations might be able to start anew. The group wondered if the township could or would have any future oversight role.

However, Sickmann determined neither Jackson Township nor the church are responsible for overseeing the cemetery.

Management has been the responsibility of a separate organization, The Lutheran Cemetery Foundation of Pershing, Indiana. The cemetery association was founded in 1970, state records show.

According to the Indiana Secretary of State’s website, the cemetery’s non-profit association had been dissolved and went inactive as of Feb. 5, 2021, because its required business entity report due in August 2020 had not been filed.

Western Wayne News has been told the board hasn’t met in more than three years. Many organizations paused meetings after the pandemic began in 2020. Some learned how to conduct video meetings, while others did not.

The group of about 20 gathered three times to figure out its next steps before announcing a community meeting on Oct. 3. They discussed what has been learned so far, gathered residents’ questions, and considered forming a new board.

Paul Railsback, a former bank auditor, described his search for the cemetery’s deeds. He discovered legal documents that have been filed regarding four portions of the property.

A 1901 document shows Zion’s Lutheran Church still owns the piece of the cemetery closest to its building. It stipulated that two church officials should be on the cemetery board, and if the association didn’t keep up the cemetery, the church could take back that land.

Five years later, the Boyd family sold two acres that expanded the cemetery to the west; and in 1944, the Bertsch family sold 2.75 acres for additional growth. In 1991, the Boyd family deeded another section to the cemetery.

Addressing concerns about future burials, those who already have gravestones in the cemetery with their names on them, or have their certificate of purchase, will have an easier time proving ownership immediately, compared to those lacking that information. The cemetery does have markers that clearly identify sections, helping clarify plot ownership questions as well.

Group leaders said they believe no more than 10 graves are opened yearly at the cemetery, so they are hopeful that few if any people will be affected immediately, and area funeral directors have been alerted about the current situation.

A slate of new board members – which grew to seven from five – was approved by the lot owners in attendance. They are Daryl Fields, Donna Wright, Terry Bertsch, Ron Lamott, Wanda Knipp, Tom Bertsch and Railsback.

A few others said they would serve in advisory roles to share their professional experience in banking and related fields, or assisting with other local cemeteries, without being on the board.

The board previously required its five members to own plots. However, those present agreed to add two members who don’t currently own land there to help broaden the board’s skill set in navigating the current challenges.

They also slightly adapted the guidance found in the historic documents, choosing to have two cemetery board members be active members of Zion Lutheran Church. Concerns were raised about the older language saying “church officials” should be on the cemetery board because church council members serve two-year terms, and that turnover could be a negative for the cemetery.

Immediate needs identified for the group include raising some funds to cover urgent expenses. They estimated about $20,000 per year is needed to operate the cemetery, and they are hopeful that maintenance costs will be low as winter approaches. Gifts would not be tax-deductible at this time.

Some attending suggested that future cemetery leaders report more frequently to the church and community so that if any management concerns arise, that they could be addressed more quickly.

Frank Poole of Cambridge City said he came to the meeting very worried, since he and his wife had purchased cemetery plots earlier this year for a total of $1,000. They wondered if their certificates of purchase remained good. Afterward, Poole said they felt better about their investment.

“People are ready to take on what needs to be taken on and straighten the whole mess out,” Poole said.

Carol Meyer of Hagerstown also said she felt better after attending what she called a “very good meeting.” Meyer has some relatives buried in the cemetery.

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