Cemetery supporters seek lights, taller fence

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Dozens of headstones at Old Lorimier Cemetery were toppled in October.

Historic preservation enthusiasts anxious to avoid a repeat of the October vandalism at Old Lorimier Cemetery want elaborate security measures.

More lights, taller fences and video surveillance top the list. The cost, which is unknown, would be paid through a fund-raising campaign and city funds, they said.

Sixty-nine headstones were toppled at Cape Girardeau's oldest cemetery in late October. The offer of a $2,000 reward hasn't resulted in arrests of anyone in connection with the damage, which will cost $40,000 to $60,000 to repair.

The city's oldest cemetery is the final resting place for thousands of early settlers, including town founder Louis Lorimier and his wife, Charlotte, who died in 1808. The cemetery was named to the National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 28.

Brenda Schloss of the city's Planning Services office is helping to direct the security evaluation. The first thing she and others interested in the cemetery wants to do is beef up police patrols. Officers who patrol near the cemetery at 500 N. Fountain St. should also have keys that would allow them to enter the cemetery at night when it is locked, she said. A taller fence to replace the 6-foot chain link fence is also on Schloss' list, along with doubling the number of lights and installing the security cameras.

"We would find out how much it costs, go to the council and see how much the city could afford and how much we would have to raise and for what purpose," Schloss said.

Neighbors the best defense

Those security measures sound good, but the most effective security measures would be cemetery neighbors paying attention, said Terrell Weaver, manager of Cape Girardeau's public cemeteries.

"We need people reporting to police when they see people they are unsure of or not there for a good reason," Weaver said.

The cemetery is open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. It is closed on weekends. That limited access stems from city budget constraints, Weaver said.

One idea, he said, would be to install more lights but take down the fences. There are six lights in the cemetery, but they provide minimal illumination, leaving most of the area is shrouded in darkness after sundown. Vandals feel safe from discovery, he said. "When the gates are locked, they know they are the only ones in there."

While Weaver realizes that tearing out the fence isn't a practical solution, he questions whether bigger fences are a better answer. The current fence is 6 feet tall with three strands of barbed wire.

"Someone can get over whatever size you put there," he said.

The chain-link fence was installed after a previous fund-raising effort, noted Terri Foley, a historic preservation consultant. Removing the fence from the dark, isolated cemetery -- Old Lorimier is surrounded on three sides by wooded lots or open space -- would invite more vandalism and "activities that should not be done in a cemetery," she said.

A fence at least 8 feet tall, with vertical bars rather than chain link, would probably be harder to climb, she said.

Video cameras capable of watching both day and night should be installed, Foley said.

Expensive security systems could be an attraction for vandals and thieves rather than a deterrent, Weaver said. A small shed beside the cemetery has been burglarized three times this year alone, he noted. The equipment needed to record video images would need to be securely housed, he said.

"We have a history of there not being a lot of expenditures on the cemeteries," Weaver said. "That is no one's fault, but there are budgetary demands and people would prefer to have their tax dollars spent on things with a more immediate use."

History 'sells the city'

Keeping remaining headstones intact and preserving the cemetery can boost tourism in Cape Girardeau, said Bill Eddleman of the city Historic Preservation Comission. "What it boils down to is the city needs to go with history as a thing that sells the city," Eddleman said. "If we are not going with things that sell the history of the town, we don't have a lot to feature."

But the ideas to improve security are expensive, Eddleman said. "I don't know where that money would come from."

The cost question should be answered by the end of the year, after discussions with businesses capable of providing the items on the list, Schloss said. That is when discussions on fund-raising or taxpayer contributions should begin, she said.

Weaver, however, isn't sure what would help. "Other than stationing guards out there, I don't know," he said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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