Burial at Sea

Even when you're dead, the city can still screw you.

Johnny Head Yvette McKee Martiese Head Cleveland Memorial Gardens
Martiese Head asked the city to move her father's body. The city refused. - Walter  Novak
Martiese Head asked the city to move her father's body. The city refused.
It's a soggy Saturday morning at Cleveland Memorial Gardens when Yvette McKee arrives at her father's grave -- a sticky mound of mud, completely submerged under inches of cold, filthy water.

McKee's younger sister, Martiese Head, kicks through the cloudy puddle with her boots, hoping to get a glimpse of their father's tombstone. But it never appears.

"It's a beautiful tombstone," Head says sadly. "We bought it for like $3,000 -- got his picture engraved on it and everything."

McKee bursts into tears, trying to hide her grief beneath an umbrella.

"This is just horrible," she says. "I have these nightmares where my father is drowning, calling for me to beware of the water."

Welcome to Cleveland Memorial Gardens, where bodies don't rest in peace -- they lie in a sea of dingy rainwater.

The East Side graveyard is almost 100 years younger than any of the city's other 11 publicly owned cemeteries. It was built in 1999, when Highland Park finally reached its maximum occupancy of 132,397 graves.

Now, Cleveland Memorial Gardens boasts 10,311 interments across its prairie-like expanse. Its 29 acres are a drab stretch of crabgrass and mud, dotted with a few young trees and the occasional brightly colored bouquet.

This is where McKee and Head came to lay their father, Johnny Head, to rest. In 2001, they purchased a plot next to his sister's for $815, the city's going rate.

"We wanted to keep the family together," Head says.

There were no visible problems with the land when she bought it. But when she returned a year later to bury another relative, she was stunned: The cemetery had become a marsh. They couldn't even find their father's plot.

"We looked for over an hour," Head says. "But we couldn't find his headstone, because it was underwater."

Their father's wasn't the only flooded grave. As she futilely searched, she saw an elderly couple doing the same, to no avail.

So when she got home, Head called David Mitchell, the city's cemetery manager, to complain. Mitchell offered little solace, explaining that the city had, unfortunately, built the cemetery on swampy land that had not been properly drained.

Head asked that the city exhume her father's body and move it to dry land, but Mitchell demurred, saying that it would be an impossible expense.

Instead, Head was left to deal with the problem as best she could. During winters, she'd try draining the site with buckets. In the summers, she'd wash away the mud that caked on her father's headstone. Once, she even tried planting grass, but it wouldn't grow.

What irks Head most is that the city continues to sell plots on the flooded land. "How can they continue to do this to families?" she says.

Maureen Harper, a spokeswoman for Frank Jackson's office, says that the city has no other option. "Because the other cemetery in that area is full, we have to continue selling plots there," she says. "When you're grieving, this isn't what should happen, absolutely. It's just a difficult situation."

It's also a matter of cash. Cleveland Memorial Gardens is one of only three cemeteries that's generating revenue to feed the cemeteries' $2.1 million operating budget.

"Don't blame the cemetery management," advises Charles Taylor, a local funeral director and the former president of the Black Funeral Directors Association. "Point the finger at downtown."

Taylor says the city has a long history of fudging with the cemeteries' upkeep funds, beginning with the Kucinich administration.

When the city went into default, Kucinich robbed the cemeteries' upkeep coffers to feed the city's general fund. Since then, it has only gotten worse, with the city recently slashing the cemeteries' budget.

"This thing has dominoed since the days of good ol' Dennis," Taylor says. "That's life in the big city, if you're alive or dead."

The cemetery was built under the administration of former mayor Michael White. White awarded the job to S.W. Franks Construction Co. -- a local firm that also worked on the Gateway and Browns Stadium projects. (The company did not return Scene's calls.)

Now, Jackson is left to clean up the mess.

"We've tried to improve the grade of the land and add a drainage trench, but none of it has worked," spokeswoman Harper says. "So now we're working with the city's engineers, trying to find something that will fix the problem. We're hoping to have a plan as soon as next week."

In the meantime, Head and her sister continue to search in vain for their departed relatives. After they snapped photos of their father's eroding plot, they moved on to look for their mother's grave, a rose-colored tombstone.

"It should be right here," Head says.

The sisters walk in circles, kicking through numerous puddles. "She wasn't underwater yet!" McKee shouts in frustration.

But as the rain turns to snow, the women slouch back to their cars, heads bowed in defeat.

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