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Memory Lawn cemetery owner promises improvements

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Tampering with a water pump meant water was not getting to irrigation lines at Memory Lawn Memorial Cemetery as expected, says Henry Mayhew, president of the nonprofit that owns the cemetery. He said the nonprofit will buy new trees if necessary. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Vandalism, storms and drought have affected property

One of the owners of Memory Lawn Memorial Cemetery said additional improvements will be made to the East 19th Street site.

Drought, the recent storms and someone tampering with a water pump have caused such problems as browning of trees and vegetation, some holes near gravesites and covered or sinking headstones.

A partnership with the American Legion, Post 61, also has been forged, so that volunteers with the veterans group will remove debris and do some general groundskeeping on a regular basis, said Henry Mayhew of Irvine, California.

He is president of Memory Lawn Memorial Cemetery, the nonprofit that has owned the cemetery since March 2018.

During the past three years, the nonprofit and investors have spent more than $50,000 to make improvements and manage the site.

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“We haven’t deserted it,” Mayhew said. “We are still a cemetery for the city.”

A couple of people with relatives buried at the cemetery have called the Roswell Daily Record in recent days to voice their concerns.

“I think it is a disgrace what they are doing to everybody out there,” said Don Foster of Roswell, who said he has relatives buried there.

He said the lack of watering and the growth of mesquite bushes near gravesites have bothered him, which he has expressed to Mayhew.

Pat Bonds of East Texas said he cried when on a recent visit to the cemetery, a couple of weeks ago, he saw the condition of the grounds. He said his father has been buried there since 1958 and he usually visited the cemetery once a year. He said he was shocked this time to see that most of the greenery had been removed.

“I knew there were problems,” he said, “but I did not know it had gotten that bad. It looked like the moon.”

But, he added, “My interest is not what has happened in the past, but what is intended for the future.”

Mayhew said a lot of factors have led to the current conditions. The coronavirus pandemic and related health and travel restrictions prevented him from making trips to Roswell to visit the site. He said there also have been several incidents of vandalism at the cemetery.

The contractor who works frequently at the cemetery recently discovered that someone or several people broke into the control box for the water and irrigation system and turned off the water pump, perhaps taking water from the site first. He said that meant no water was going to the 100 or so Italian cypress trees lining the front of the cemetery.

The trees were planted in September 2020 with the intent that they would beautify the site and provide a privacy barrier when they were grown. Most of the trees have turned brown, and Mayhew said he does not know if they will be able to recover.

“If they are not, we will buy new ones. I made a promise,” said Mayhew.

He said that about 25% of the $25,000 for the cost of the trees was paid when people purchased engraved granite memorial markers to honor loved ones. The cemetery’s social media site indicates that the markers were installed in February. Mayhew said that he will ensure that trees either are restored or new ones are planted.

Mayhew said that work already has begun to fill in holes and shore up the headstones to fix the damage caused by the late May storms. His next step will be to install security systems to prevent future vandalism.

The next priority, he said, is to straighten the headstones into lines and create pathways between them to create a more organized layout on the grounds. That not only will improve the appearance, but will make it easier for people to find the graves of loved ones.

“Once we do that, we have already assigned numbers to them, but then we can actually put the numbers on the graves and then you can go out there and press your number on the computer and look up your mom and dad,” Mayhew said.

Mayhew, who was born in Roswell and whose father attended the New Mexico Military Institute, has relatives buried at the cemetery. He said he understands from personal experience that it is difficult to find gravesites.

The cemetery at 2605 E. 19th St., just east of the city limits, has about 2,000 people buried at it. It has been owned by several entities since it was created in 1953.

In 2009 several people, including Mayhew, sued a former owner, who is now deceased, alleging that the money that had been paid for maintenance of the cemetery was misused. The cemetery was then placed in a court-ordered receivership in 2010 until the court agreed in 2018 to the takeover deal proposed by Mayhew and his partners.

The city of Roswell, which owns South Park Cemetery, held several meetings to discuss taking over Memory Lawn, but the Roswell City Council voted against that in April 2017. Chaves County officials were not interested in taking ownership.

Since March 2018, Mayhew and his partners have fixed the water pump, purchased and planted cypress trees for about $25,000, put in a road, repainted statuary, installed the memorial markers, created a database to keep track of deeds and plots, and hired staff to organize and maintain records and deeds and work with the public on burials.

The investors had hoped to raise money for the nonprofit by selling bottled water but found out that the water was too brackish. Their plan to grow herbs in a hydroponic facility on a tract directly to the north of the cemetery is still a possibility, Mayhew said, but depends on a lot of factors, including the costs of shipping herbs to market.

Mayhew said that the partnership with the American Legion post will be a “Godsend.”

Stephen Lee, commander of the post, said that volunteers expect to be at the grounds twice a month, with the next cleanup planned for late June. The group already has removed debris recently because they had hoped to hold a Memorial Day ceremony there, an event canceled by storms. They are now planning to hold a Fourth of July celebration at 10 a.m. on July 3.

“There is something like 275 veterans there,” Lee said, although Mayhew said the count is closer to 297. “We decided that this cemetery would be a good project for us. It it a good fit with our organization.”

Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.