Volunteers Preserving Cleveland Cemeteries

CLEVELAND (AP) - A group of volunteers is looking to clean up 12 litter-plagued, weed-infested cemeteries that bear the graves 43,600 people.

Manda Gillespie, an environmental worker and cemeteries champion, wants to restore their old role not just as graveyards but also as museums and parks, beloved for their granite and greenery.

"Families would come and visit their ancestors and have picnics and bring the next generation to learn about the past," Gillespie says.

The new Friends of Monroe Cemetery commemorated thousands of American deaths on Sept. 11 by reviving Monroe. About 200 volunteers planted trees, sheared bushes, unearthed buried curbstones and bagged trash.

Mayor Jane Campbell has embraced the group, launching the citywide Friends of Cleveland Cemeteries, which held its first meeting this month. The members, who are invitation-only so far, include activists like Gillespie and experts in relevant fields, such as monuments.

The group hopes to recruit money and muscle to broaden the work done by the staff of longtime cemeteries manager David Mitchell on a budget of $2.4 million per year.

"We're short-staffed, and the cemeteries division is anxious to get whatever help it can," said Natalie Saikaly, the new assistant director of parks, recreation and properties. "We want to encourage people to use cemeteries and make the places feel inhabited -- respectfully inhabited -- so the nondesirable uses are discouraged."

The city's cemeteries contain the graves of pioneer Lorenzo Carter, baseball star Luke Easter, trailblazing black state lawmaker John P. Green, Civil War Gen. Gershom Barber and American Indian advocate Chief Thunderwater.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)