Concerns Growing Over State's Lack Of Plan For GRC Cemetery

A gazebo and covered case with a listing of burials located at the entrance to the Glenwood Resource Center Cemetery.

More than 1,000 people are buried in the GRC Cemetery.

The grave stone for Willie O'Neal, the first burial at the GRC Cemetery in 1883, when the facility was called the Iowa Institution For Feeble-Minded Children.

Most of the grave stones in the GRC Cemetery are covered in grass and dried grass clippings.

Situated on a secluded slope on the south side of the Glenwood Resource Center campus is an unrenowned cemetery that’s become a growing source of concern for Glenwood residents and city officials as the closure of the state-managed facility draws near.

The GRC is scheduled to close in eight months, but the State Of Iowa has yet to reveal its plan for the cemetery that has more than 1,000 graves.

“My biggest concern is the cemetery. They (state) just want to walk away,” Glenwood City Administrator Amber Farnan said last week while discussing the pending GRC closure at the Glenwood City Council meeting.

In a subsequent interview after the meeting, Farnan said state officials have made it clear they have no intention of maintaining the cemetery after they vacate the GRC campus.

“We had a discussion with them not too long ago and asked them, ‘What’s the plan for the cemetery? Will the state continue to maintain their cemetery?’ They said, ‘No. Whoever takes over the cemetery will have to maintain it.’”

It is unclear at this point who will ultimately take over the GRC property (including the cemetery) after the state leaves the campus. It could be the city, a local LLC/task force or a private developer. Whoever it is, there will certainly be costs associated with maintaining the cemetery that’s been on the campus for 140 years.

“We want to be respectful of the cemetery that’s there, but the city, at this point, nor the county, really have the resources available to maintain the cemetery, much less the rest of the campus,” Farnan said. “I have made sure in our conversations with the state that that is discussed. They’re going to have to help somehow.”

The Opinion-Tribune has reached out to the GRC and Iowa Department Of Human Services multiple times since early July to discuss the cemetery, but employees at both agencies have been unwilling to answer questions about the issue, even after questions were submitted in writing at the request of a IDHS public information officer.

One official who has been willing to answer questions on the matter is District 16 State Rep. David Sieck, who resides in Glenwood and has the GRC in his legislative district. Sieck feels the state should maintain some responsibility for upkeep of the cemetery, financial or otherwise, after the GRC closes.

“It’s a state facility, I don’t see how they can abandon it. Somebody is going to have to take care of it,” Sieck said. “The state is either going to have to compensate the city or something because it doesn’t make any sense that they could just abandon it.

“Just because they want to get rid of the facility doesn’t necessarily mean that you get rid of the cemetery.”

Late last week, Sieck shared the local concerns in Glenwood about the cemetery with Adam Steen, Director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services.

Responding to Sieck by email, Steen said the state hasn’t made a decision on the future of the cemetery, but it is being included in the campus master plan discussions. Steen said it’s his “hope” an arrangement is worked out to turn the entire GRC campus over to a local entity and he’s confident a “good and fair” solution will be worked out in 2024. That solution, he said, “will require discussion about dollars and cents.”

Retired GRC Superintendent Tom Hoogestraat, who still resides in Glenwood, said he anticipates an agreement to be worked out eventually that will preserve the cemetery.

“I think the cemetery needs to remain there and I think that’s what will happen,” Hoogestraat said. “It will be an entity of a cemetery, but who will maintain it, I don’t know. The LLC that’s being developed to kind of monitor what takes place with the property, I’m assuming they might have some say-so in that.

“The city might have some responsibility, but I’m not sure who would exactly handle that. I don’t see the state having any responsibility with it.”

Hoogestraat believes many people in Glenwood are unaware that a cemetery even exists on the campus. Hoogestraat, who retired from the GRC in 2008, said the number of burials in the cemetery declined in his final years as superintendent.

“There was probably a point in time when it was used quite a bit, but in the last years, it was used less and less,” he said. “Most of the people who passed away, their families would take them to their local cemeteries where they came from. There were just occasional burials where either a family requested that the person be interred there or there was no family at all.”

Hoogestraat said the cemetery was always a source of pride during his tenure at GRC.

“The thing we were always very aware of and proud of was the fact that at this facility, you can find a loved one’s grave,” he said.

“They’re all marked, we know where everybody is buried, whereas through history in other parts of the United States, there are some institutions that don’t have a clue who’s buried where.”

One of the former GRC employees who was responsible for keeping track of burials at the cemetery was Glenwood resident Carrie Merritt, who retired as the assistant business manager in 1987 after working more than 40 years at what was known then as the Glenwood State Hospital-School.

Merritt and two work-study students from Glenwood High School put together a map and roster book that detailed where every person was buried up to that point.

“We spent a lot of time in that cemetery and in the patients’ records,” Merritt pointed out. “I made a card for every grave and that map so that they could have them at the switchboard.”

Merritt said not all people buried at the cemetery are former GRC residents.

“There were some employees and some transients, too” she said. “They (transients) came in on the train and then would stop there because they could get fed. If they happened to die, they just buried them right there at the cemetery.”

Merritt pointed out that at one time several of the grave markers stood vertically, but they were eventually all placed flat to allow for easier mowing of the grounds.

Willie O’Neal, who died in September 1883, was first burial at the cemetery when the facility was still called the Iowa Institution For Feeble-Minded Children.

Merritt said she hopes the cemetery is given the consideration and respect it deserves after the GRC closes next year. She mentioned that grave stones from the GRC cemetery have occasionally shown up in places they shouldn’t be.

“I saw one at a person’s house here in town,” Merrit said. “I thought, where did that come from? Did somebody just take it? I think I’ve seen two of them that have no business being anywhere but that cemetery.”

The cemetery is currently being mowed by GRC staff, however the majority of grave stones are covered by grass and dried grass clippings.

Merritt said the cemetery should be maintained in a proper manner to ensure the dignity of the people buried on the site.

“It needs to be cared for,” Merritt said. “It’s a cemetery.”

The Opinion-Tribune

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