In an effort that began in February, volunteers clean up and tend to Bonheur Memorial Park

Pet cemetery is peaceful again

June 02, 2006|By LAURA CADIZ | LAURA CADIZ,SUN REPORTER

The Bonheur Memorial Park in Elkridge looks again, like a peaceful pet cemetery, with a neatly manicured lawn and fake flowers gracing some of the graves.

Gone is the sea of 2-foot-tall grass. Sunken gravestones have been raised and detailed. Dead tree branches have been cleared away.

The cosmetic changes at the pet cemetery -- whose owner has said it is closed -- are because of volunteers who have taken it on themselves to ensure that their pets and others have a serene resting place.

"We went out there, and it was horrible," said Penny Blankenship, who with her husband, Gilbert, started the grass-roots effort after watching news reports about the cemetery. "We could not believe that something like this could happen to a cemetery."

The Blankenships, of Severn, organized the volunteers, some who have pets buried there and some, like the Blankenships, who do not.

Since February, a group of about five volunteers has been going out there every weekend, sometimes spending as long as six hours with a mower to maintain the grass.

"It looks wonderful out there," said David Simpson, who is part of the volunteer effort at the cemetery, where his dog, Scruffy, is buried. "It went from looking like a swamp in February to looking like a golf course."

Gunter Tertel, the owner of the cemetery, told The Sun in November that the cemetery is closed because of a lack of funds, and he is attempting to reopen it. Last week, he said the cemetery is still not open and "it's very debatable" whether he is going to try and open it in the future. He would not comment further.

However, Tertel's lawyer, Robert Fila, said the cemetery is part of about 14 acres along U.S. 1 that Tertel owns. While Tertel is planning to commercially and residentially develop "the balance" of the property, he is planning to leave the cemetery as open space, Fila said.

Fila said fees from the residential development condominium association would be used to maintain the cemetery.

"It wouldn't continue to operate, it would be frozen in time," Fila said. "It would be maintained in a quality and respectful manner."

Fila said while maintaining the cemetery through condominium fees would likely happen within two to three years, Tertel is willing to care for the area now, but the volunteers are doing it.

"If [the lawn] is already mowed, there's no sense in mowing it again," Fila said.

However, Blankenship is unsure that Tertel would maintain the area now if the volunteers stopped, and she questions if the cemetery will be saved.

"If he wants to go on record and say he'd maintain it from now on, that's fine with me," she said. "I have a lot of other things to do."

Until the Blankenships stepped in, the closed cemetery -- where about 22,000 animals are buried -- had appeared abandoned, with overgrown grass hiding grave markers.

The Blankenships have reached out to pet owners through a Web site: www. gimpydogs.com/rosabonheur.html, where people can read updates about the volunteers' efforts, learn the protocol of cleaning up the cemetery and sign a petition to the state attorney general.

The petition -- which ends with a quote by Gandhi, "Society will be judged by how we treat our animals" -- explains that there are rumors about the site being sold for commercial development and urges: "If the property is to be sold, then the owners (new or old) should be held responsible for interring the remains of both humans and pets and arranging for their placement in a reputable and well cared for cemetery, not mass dumped somewhere."

Blankenship said the petition has received more than 1,400 signatures.

Consultant Penny Blankenship, 43, said she and her husband felt compelled to help because "it's the right thing to do."

"We realized there all these people who are older or are dead and they put their money into this and thought their pets would be cared for," she said. "It's like a crime, it's not right, and something needs to be done."

When Simpson went to the cemetery in February, he couldn't find his dog's grave, even though he had marked its coordinates with a global positioning system receiver. A metal detector helped locate it.

"It was under 2-foot-high grass and sod," said Simpson, 45, a physicist who lives in Laurel. "[The grave marker] was tilted and half under water. The grass had grown so tall that there was no drainage there, and some of the markers were under water.

"It's heartbreaking to see your pet's final resting place in that kind of condition."

The Woodstock Job Corps Center also has joined the effort, with eight landscaping students clearing dead tree limbs and pruning the trees.

Mike Bull, the Job Corps landscaping teacher, said he also heard about the troubled cemetery from the media and wanted to give his students, ages 16 to 24, a real-world job experience.

"They've gotten something out of this that I can't teach," Bull said of his students, adding that they have developed a sense of ownership for the cemetery. "They might not be able to change the world, but they can make a difference in a part of it somewhere and actually enjoy the work."

Simpson said it's gratifying for him to spend every weekend tending to the site, allowing pet owners to visit their animals in a nice place. And he plans to continue for as long as it's necessary.

"Somebody has to [maintain the cemetery]," he said. "And I'm willing to be one of the volunteers to do it."

laura.cadiz@baltsun.com

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