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Op-Ed: Volunteers Shouldn't Have to Trespass to Maintain Dayton Cemetery

Since October of 2012, dedicated volunteers have cared for St. Francis of Assisi Cemetery in Dayton, Kentucky. The cemetery is important to local history. There are headstones for local veterans of the Civil War, Spanish-American War, and World War II, as well as headstones for those lost to the epidemics that swept through the area at the turn of the 20th century. Its local history worth remembering and honoring.

The problem is the cemetery is landlocked. 

St. Francis of Assisi Cemetery is owned by the Catholic Diocese of Covington, but if you go to the diocese website it’s not listed as a diocese cemetery along with their others. Also, anyone needing to access the cemetery must do so by following along the railroad tracks for about a half a mile until they reach the graveyard.

How Did This Happen?

On December 6, 1968, the diocese sold the parcel of land in front of the cemetery (48 Mary Ingles Highway) to George Thomas Jr. and his wife Suzanne. Railroad tracks divide the parcels. In the deed, the diocese was sure to include provisions for an easement. It states that the new owners “agree to provide a road for ingress and egress to the cemetery and maintain same in good condition; and agree also to maintain in a state of good repair the building housing the cemetery equipment.” 

The easement verbiage remained on the deed when Geroge Thomas Jr. died and the property ownership transferred to his widow in August of 1980. It gets tricky from there. The property was placed in a trust for George Jr.’s sons. When it passed down the family line in accordance of that trust, the easement provision simply disappeared. Another question is, when did the diocese cease maintaining the cemetery?  

In the early 1980s, volunteers from St. Bernard Church in Dayton first decided to clean up St. Francis of Assisi Cemetery. The cemetery was abandoned and being vandalized, and volunteers remember removing close to 60 trees at that time. The timing of the cemetery falling into disrepair coincides with the easement verbiage disappearing from the deed. If an easement is not recognized it’s easy to not keep it maintained.

After following the paper trail, I reached out to Don Knochelmann, director of buildings and property staff for the Diocese of Covington, to see if he could help me understand what happened to the easement and the maintenance of St. Francis of Assisi Cemetery. He referred me to Diocese archives director, Tom Ward, who said that they have “very little on St. Francis Cemetery in the archives,” and that he “did not really find anything about an easement or anything so I am not able to help you.”  

I also heard from a cemetery volunteer shortly after I had phoned the diocese. The volunteer called me to say that the diocese contacted them after I called and informed them that if there was any media coverage, volunteers would be prohibited from maintaining the cemetery. “The project will be shut down,” this volunteer told me. 

I want to clarify here that since the volunteer team took this project on in 2012, they’ve been doing so with diocese permission and assistance. The diocese began mowing the cemetery grounds twice monthly about six months into the restoration project. To do this, the diocese groundskeeper must also traverse dangerously alongside the railroad tracks to reach the cemetery for which they are being asked to maintain.

I contacted the City of Dayton and spoke to Joe Neary, a city council member. I asked him if there was a local ordinance being violated regarding the diocese and its history of care for the cemetery and if the city was concerned about people walking the railroad tracks to reach it. Neary told me, “The cemetery is currently being maintained to our satisfaction and there’s no reason for us to be involved with a private property issue unless someone complains.” Neary says that the city is also happy with the decline in vandalism of the cemetery since the restoration of the property.

With the help of Jennifer Kreder, a professor of law who teaches courses in property law for Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University, I learned that Kentucky state law says that cemeteries must be maintained by their legal owners and if they are not, governing authorities may hold them accountable. 

Professor Kreder also helped me understand that the easement created for the 1968 sale of the property is still binding. Kreder says, “There is no additional document necessary. An easement was created.” 

A cemetery is a consecrated place where we honor family, history, and community. By denying access or making access a challenge, we disrespect the dead and those who wish to show their respects to family, veterans, or community members.

The City of Dayton, the diocese, and the current owners of 48 Mary Ingles Highway need to sit down together and arrive at a solution before someone is harmed. There is no reason for volunteers or diocese staff or anyone else wishing to visit the cemetery to risk injury by walking or driving along the railroad tracks to reach St. Francis of Assisi Cemetery when an easement was created in order to avoid this very circumstance. If someone gets hurt, then all parties stand to lose much more than a path. 

Written by Bonnie Jean Feldkamp, RCN contributor and Communications Director for the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.