What’s the issue? The status of the 117-year-old Mount Washington Cemetery remains unclear as legal and financial issues from previous owners are still being worked out.

How does it affect me? Many in the community cherish it as jewel of local history and hope things turn out well.

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Mount Washington Cemetery, where some of the most famous people in Independence and Kansas City history are buried, remains in a legal and financial limbo. The company called to run it when a financial crisis hit it several years ago acknowledges that creates significant challenges.

“Money is the biggest problem,” said Duke Radovich, president of Charter Funerals.

The cemetery remains in foreclosure, and Charter can’t get to funds set aside specifically for maintenance. Also, there’s no movement to replace a bridge that flooding took out two years ago. Numerous dead trees stand at the cemetery, and Charter has been working at that, too.

“We have good people here who care,” said Jim Radovich, general manager of Charter.

Beyond all that, many see a historical jewel and much potential.

“You have Kansas City history there. We have pioneers and western expansion history there,” said Independence City Council Member John Perkins.

Duke Radovich agreed.

“This is a neat place,” he said.

 

Famous names

The 280-acre cemetery lies between Truman Road and Winner Road in Independence. Its southwestern corner is up against Blue Ridge Boulevard on the city’s western edge. It was begun in 1900, and nearly 50,000 people are buried there.

Some of the names of those buried there leap out of regional and national history. Others made significant marks on the world, even if their names have faded a bit.

There’s Jim Bridger, the mountain man and namesake of a local middle school. (He died in 1881 and was later relocated to Mount Washington, not an uncommon practice.) There’s also William Rockhill Nelson, co-founder of The Kansas City Star and namesake of the region’s most well-known art museum.

The list goes on:

• Nell Donnelly Reed – the fashion designer known as Nelly Don – as well as her husband, James A. Reed, the U.S. senator, three-time candidate for president and attorney in the Swope murder trial.

• At least two recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor. Army Staff Sgt. Herbert H. Burr in March 1945 single-handedly drove a damaged tank into a German anti-tank crew and then ran through sniper fire to aid a fallen comrade. Army Sgt. Charles R. Long’s company in Korea was overrun and ordered to withdraw, but he stayed -- and died -- directing mortar fire, throwing hand grenades and firing his weapon, giving cover to his unit.

• Clarence Kelly, police chief in Kansas City and director of the FBI.

• Hector V. Barreto, founder of the Kansas City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

• Annie Ridenbaugh Bird, who at her husband’s death in 1918 became president of one of Kansas City’s most prominent businesses, the Emery, Bird, Thayer Company. She is thought to have been the first woman in Kansas City to hold such a position.

• One of the 74 sailors died in 1969 when the USS Evans collided with an Australian ship near Vietnam.

All of this is appealing to those drawn to history and genealogy.

Thad McCullough of Independence is one.

“I love that cemetery,” he said.

He leads a tour there October, and he mentions some of the notable people buried there such as the namesakes of two local high schools, banker William Chrisman and Robert Van Horn, who was a mayor of Kansas City, a congressman and a Civil War veteran.

“This was the place where America kind of started, the western half of it anyway,” McCullough said.

Council Member Perkins agreed.

“This is a hidden jewel, a hidden asset that the city has …” he said,

 

Troubles

Mount Washington was one of the cemeteries owned by the Cassity family and National Prearranged Services. That company collapsed several years ago with losses reported at $600 million, and members of the Cassity family were sentenced to prison. Investigators likened the company’s approach to a Ponzi scheme, and many who bought pre-need plans have lost money.

“A lot of families got hurt,” Perkins said.

With the cemetery still in foreclosure, Charter faces constraints. For instance, when you buy a plot, a portion is set aside for maintenance in an endowment for the entire cemetery. Under Missouri law, the interest off that pays for maintenance in perpetuity.

Mount Washington’s fund has $1.5 million, Duke Radovich said, but Charter can’t touch it while the cemetery remains in foreclosure. Also, Charter can’t sell pre-need plans at Mount Washington, which would generate cash the cemetery badly needs.

When will that get cleared up? Radovich referred that question to the Missouri attorney general’s office, which this week did not get back to The Examiner with answers to that and other questions, such as how many local families might still be looking for restitution.

Charter, based in Grandview and well known in the area for years, was asked to step in and run the cemetery at least while the legal issues are sorted out.

 

Trees, grass, water

The cemetery itself presents issues. The land is rolling, and it’s an older cemetery with lots of upright memorials, not like more modern cemeteries on flatter ground with flat markers, making mowing easier.

Mowing is a challenge. The cemetery has four mowers and three people on weed cutters, and mowing it all takes a week if the weather is good. That costs $4,500.

“It’s a huge challenge for maintenance,” said Duke Radovich.

Dead trees are an issue. Charter has taken out more than 60 in the past two years “and we’ve got another 40 to go,” said Cheryall Thompson, director of the cemetery.

Jim Radovich said Charter does work to address the trees but also pointed out that having graves and headstones everywhere makes the work harder.

“Imagine having 200 obstacles under it that you can’t touch,” he said.

Two years ago, a bridge on the road on the east side of the cemetery came down amid heavy rain – a development Charter says the city contributed to when stormwater improvements were made several years ago. A sign at the bridge says Rock Creek now has “an unobstructed path to flow onto cemetery property.”

The bridge is still out, though drivers can get around cemetery by taking other roads.

What’s worse, Charter says, is that since the bridge came down the Federal Emergency Management Agency came in and, thanks to the stormwater work, redefined the flood basin. A simple restoration of the old bridge wouldn’t be enough. It would have to span a wider area. Cost? Easily $1 million, says Charter,

Duke Radovich said the city and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should take some responsibility for the bridge.

The city says it can’t and won’t pay for a new bridge.

“Well, it’s on private property. That’s the deal,” Perkins said.

Charter said the storm that took out the bridge brought 6 inches of rain in two hours and says Rock Creek floods worse and hits the cemetery harder since the city’s project.

“It’s only getting worse,” said Jim Radovich.