By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
SALTILLO – If you plan to stay an eternity somewhere, you want it to retain its beauty over the years.
But for thousands of souls, the Saltillo City Cemetery did not live up to that expectation. A resting place for the deceased since at least the 1860s, the property had deteriorated over time.
Headstones cracked and grew moldy, a wooden gazebo rotted with age, the brick entrance crumbled and the chain-link fence turned red with rust.
Also troubling was the lack of a burial plot survey, leaving city officials responsible for the cemetery no way of knowing where unmarked bodies are. Imagine digging a fresh grave only to discover it’s already occupied.
Mayor Bill Williams said all of it was unacceptable.
“I just think that how we care for the final resting place of our families and friends says a tremendous amount about the character of a community,” Williams said. “We honor our ancestors that gave us life by caring for their final resting place and doing it with respect.”
When he became mayor in 2005, Williams discovered a $100,000 cemetery fund accrued from a special tax, which no longer is levied. With the city’s blessing, Williams has spent about half those funds so far to improve the grounds.
First, the mayor reassigned cemetery lawn maintenance from an independent company to the city’s Public Works Department. Now the grounds are mowed more frequently and meticulously, with employees told to care for all plots as though their own mothers were buried there.
Then, three years ago, the city tore down the rusted chain-link fence and the crumbling entrance and erected a new wrought-iron railing and stone-veneer gateway. The year afterward, it created additional parking on the north and south ends of the cemetery, which occupy several acres near the city center.
And last year, it installed a large American flag atop a shiny, new flagpole. It also conducted a survey to identify each burial site, including those of the numerous unmarked bodies resting under the south end of the grounds.
“It’s a complete turnaround,” said Saltillo resident Kenneth Buse, who has watched the transformation from his house across the street. He bought his property four decades ago and was growing accustomed to the view of an old, unkempt cemetery.
Now Buse, 66, enjoys looking out his front door and seeing the tidy grounds. He said he might even change his mind about cremation and opt to be buried there instead.
“I’ve seen a lot of cemeteries,” he said, “but never ones kept up to this standard.”
The work’s not done, yet, either. For the past several weeks, Public Works employee Mike Gray has painstakingly scrubbed each headstone to remove decades of dirt and mold. Some of the grime had completely obscured names and dates, shrouding the markers – and some of the cemetery’s history – in mystery.
Gray repeatedly sprayed and scrubbed the stones with muriatic acid and bleach. As he did, the secrets of the dead seemed to reveal themselves: A previously blackened marble marker suddenly displayed the name Alex Ratterree, born in 1872, died in 1873. The headstones of his sister and parents stood nearby. They, too, had been hidden behind years of decay until Gray delicately cleaned them.
Now they gleam white.
Although once a popular stone for grave sites, marble is porous and easily attracts mold, especially when sitting in the shade, said Brian Griffin, owner of Tupelo Monument Co. Granite now is the marker of choice.
But for those marble stones scattered around Saltillo City Cemetery, Williams promises to keep them clean. He said they’ll be bleached every six months to prevent mold and retain their white hue.
“We’re proud of our cemetery,” he said. “And we need to keep it up.”