Portsmouth’s largest city-owned cemetery called an ‘eyesore, a disgrace’

Portsmouth

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Forrest Smith made his way through the tall grass to find his bench in the middle of Olive Branch Cemetery. The bench sits in front of a granite headstone that reads “Smith” in big bold etched letters. 

“She was a very special lady,” Smith said. “She was with me until 2013.” 

He sat and remembered as birds and crickets sung in the grasses and trees around him.

“We had great times and we had bad times. She had Alzheimer’s disease and it was a terrible time in our life.” 

He has pictures of their lives together. One was of Anna as a senior at the former Craddock High School where the two first met. They were childhood sweethearts and married in October 1965. They would be married 47 years.  

Like a thief in the night, Alzheimer’s stole Anna’s memory, and she died at the age of 66. He also has a picture of the two of them towards the end. Forrest is emotional when he thinks about her.

“Those are probably the hardest times I’ve ever gone through, and until this day I still miss her.” 

But Smith’s warm thoughts of Anna are poisoned by what’s around him when he visits the cemetery.

“We got to live with this,” he said with disgust.

He’s talking about overgrown grass that covers grave markers, weeds, big clumps of dead grass cuttings that appear not carried out on a regular basis. 

Smith blames the City of Portsmouth for negligence, saying they’re failing to keep the city-owned Olive Branch Cemetery manicured. The cemetery is a massive 40-acre plot of land and is the largest of the city’s four owned cemeteries.

“Anybody looking around, it’s horrible and it is disgraceful … When we bury them, we have done the last thing we can do for them.” 

Forrest says the cemetery is consistently a mess.

“It should be nothing but respect for the person that is laying there.” 

Forrest wrote a letter to Portsmouth City Council earlier this year, and in 2018 he complained by email to Mayor John Rowe, and then met with him about the continuing problem. In his response to Smith, Rowe promised something would be done.

Smith claims there have been no long-term improvements. 

Beth Fulgham works for the cemetery’s management company, which is not responsible for cutting the grass. When asked why the grass hasn’t been cut, she suggested it may have something to do with the work crews getting COVID-19.

“I know what he’s talking about. My grandmother is right out there too. I understand. Her grave is just as bad.” 

Drone 10 shows the cemetery’s neighbor, the city’s perfectly-manicured golf course, the Links at City Park. Drone 10 footage over both properties shows the difference between the golf course and the overgrown cemetery.

“For me, respect is due here, not over at the golf course,” Smith said.

It should be noted, Smith purchased eight plots for his family for about $4,800, not to mention over $40,000 for granite headstones and other grave markers.

“When we purchased these plots, we were assured that maintenance came with them… Sadly, that’s not true,” Smith said.  

Smith has fought this “cut the grass” battle for years, now he’s turned to 10 On Your Side.

We went to the city.

“All I can do is apologize that it has gotten to that point,” says Mark Palamarchuck, director of Parks, Recreation & Tourism and it is that department that’s responsible for maintaining the grass at the city’s four cemeteries.

Palamarchuck has been director for two years. Does he understand where Smith is coming from?  

“I absolutely do. I definitely do,” he said.

Is the cemetery maintenance on a regular schedule?

“We usually are. Of course, this year with COVID-19, we are having problems getting staffing and we had to shut down the entire division at one point because of positive tests.” 

However, Smith has complained about this to the city since 2018 long before COVID-19.

“We are making a pledge to do better out there because we know it is important to people, and it is important to us as well,” Palamarchuck said.

Now, some progress is underway. On Monday after 10 On Your Side’s first visit to the cemetery on Friday, Aug. 21, ground crews were working in baking sun zooming lawnmowers in and out of gravesites, and weed whacking.

And there’s more.

“Moving forward, we have additional temporary workers we have hired. We are working with outside city contractors as well as city staff to ensure that place gets cut every seven days,” Palamarchuck said.

We even went out Wednesday after interviewing Palamarchuck and there were even more workers out. 

For Smith he’s guardedly optimistic.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s a start… People are out here — 15-20 people are over there. Usually, I see three or four. There is work being done. I can see getting ahead, and they couldn’t in the past.” 

Mr. Smith just hopes they keep coming out to fulfill a promise to thousands of important people buried at Olive Branch Cemetery.


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