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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Spend Memorial Day at Mt. Hope Cemetery

Spend Memorial Day at Mt. Hope Cemetery

Headstone decor takes on a personal touch at Mount Hope Cemetery. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Headstone decor takes on a personal touch at Mount Hope Cemetery. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

If Memorial Day has an essence it would be found in a place like Mount Hope Cemetery.

A place both solemn and silent, where visitors, no matter how boisterous they may be elsewhere, know instinctively to stroll rather than stomp, to whisper rather than shout.

A place altogether different from the scenes that have come to define this holiday — the lake buzzing with motors, the raucous backyard barbecue, the crowds of flea marketers dickering for another dollar off.

Yet for all that, within the green fields of Mount Hope, Memorial Day has not devolved into mere leisure, into another anonymous American three-day weekend.

People still gather there at this time to remember and to celebrate the lives of those they have lost.

And at no other time of the year do these survivors arrive in greater numbers.

"It's absolutely the busiest weekend — by far," said Chuck Everson, the cemetery sexton and a supervisor in Baker City's public works department. "It does get hectic."

Only rarely will you find Everson in his tiny office on the north side of Mount Hope. And even while he's sitting behind his desk the other aspects of his job, the ones outside the cemetery, lurk.

On Wednesday, for example, Everson was leafing through a ledger of burial records, searching for some number, when another city worker arrived to tell him about a problem with a water meter.

But on Memorial Day weekend Everson focuses solely on Mount Hope.

His office will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Everson said his primary duty during the weekend is helping visiting relatives and friends find a specific grave among the 15,391 marked sites.

The task is not so daunting as that number suggests.

The city's computer system contains the location of every grave site, and once he has the right name Everson needs just a few minutes to pinpoint that person's resting place.

"It's very precise," he said.

During Memorial Day weekend he's too busy to guide visitors to a particular grave. Instead, Everson shows them the general location on a map, which is sufficient to make the search a short one for most people.

The rest of the year, visitors who need help finding a loved one's grave at Mount Hope can call City Hall, 523-6541, and talk with Marydee Rea, who handles bookkeeping associated with the cemetery.

Rea will forward the request to Everson, and he'll schedule an appointment to help the visitor.

In those cases, he said, he usually has time enough to show the person the exact spot.

Rea and Everson also help families select and buy grave sites.

Many choose their plots in advance, he said — almost 4,000 of Mount Hope's approximately 17,000 unoccupied grave sites have been claimed, Everson said.

But sometimes it's a decision a relative must make during the most painful parts of the grieving process.

Assisting the bereaved with that task is not the sort of job a person can quickly forget when the work day ends, Everson said.

"You're dealing with a family at the worst time of their life," he said. "It's really a tough situation."

People who want to make their arrangements in advance should call Rea at City Hall.

Baker City charges $126.50 for a grave site, plus $286 for perpetual care. A standard burial costs $231.

The city uses the money to care for the cemetery, Rea said.

Most of the money for the cemetery comes from two trust funds within the city budget.

The larger is the Mount Hope fund, which contains about $465,000.

The second is the John Schmitz Memorial Fund. Schmitz was a Baker City businessman who left the city the money, asking that it be used only at the cemetery, City Attorney Tim Collins said.

Over the years the city has used money from the Schmitz trust fund for a variety of purposes, including the construction of a paved lane named Schmitz Drive, Collins said.

Much of the money the city collects at the cemetery pays to maintain its many acres of grass and trees.

Until the mid 1960s this was a task of city workers.

In the mid 1970s the City Council decided to hire a contractor instead, Collins said, and cemetery maintenance has been a contract job ever since.

Dan Sword has held the contract for almost two decades.

Sword, who uses his own equipment, is responsible, among many other duties, for digging graves and for watering and mowing the wide expanses of grass at Mount Hope.

His contract, for about $90,000 per year (the amount varies slightly each year based on the number of burials), also includes the not inconsiderable task of caring for Baker City's parks.

Everson said he's amazed at Sword's ability to maintain the cemetery in such a well-manicured condition.

"He absolutely does about the best job of anybody I could imagine," Everson said.

But although Everson is eager to tout Sword's skills, Sword himself is not.

He said he would prefer not to be interviewed.

Although the city owns the cemetery, the property is split into more than a dozen sections, including the Catholic (one of the older parts of Mount Hope, with many 19th century graves), Masonic, Odd Fellows, Elks and Eagles.

People who want to buy a plot in a specific section should inquire about doing so when they talk to Rea at City Hall.

The cemetery also has a special section reserved for veterans.

Mount Hope opens daily at 7 a.m. Everson said a city police officer closes the gates around dusk.

When the gates close the cemetery is off-limits not only to vehicles, but to pedestrians, he said.

Vandalism is an occasional, though not chronic, problem, Everson said.

Earlier this year vandals toppled headstones, causing several hundreds of dollars in damage, he said.

 
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