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Family members angry about upkeep of loved ones’ graves at local cemetery

By The Mercury

A local cemetery has come under fire recently by the family members of those buried there who say they are frustrated with what they see as poor upkeep and the deterioration of a once-gorgeous place. But the owner, a local landlord, says he is doing the best he can.

The cemetery in question is Valley View Memorial Gardens, located on Highway 24 on the outskirts of Manhattan. It houses approximately 500 headstones and has been around since the mid-1950s.

It is owned by Lysle Oppenlander, 68, Manhattan, who also owns several rental properties throughout the city. 

Though Tamra Nelson, Junction City, and Randy Allen, Wamego, who both have loved ones buried there, said while they have been dissatisfied with the upkeep of the cemetery for a few years now, their frustrations reached a tipping point on Memorial Day.

According to both, untrimmed weeds abounded over the headstones and the mowing had been done shoddily, if at all. “These are our loved ones,” Nelson said.

In separate conversations, both said that another couple ended up bringing a mower to clean up the grass around the graves.

Oppenlander denies those claims, stating the cemetery had been mowed, but said the trimming had not been completed fully.

Additionally, Nelson, whose father, a veteran, is buried in the cemetery, said she ordered a new headstone for his grave, but it cracked in half when set down. For months, she said, the cracked headstone has sat over her father’s grave, yet to be replaced. “It tore me in half,” Nelson said of seeing no improvements on Memorial Day. (Oppenlander said he is waiting for the new stone to arrive.)

Other complaints include overgrown foliage, obscured statues, sunken-in headstones and dead trees, but to Oppenlander, any tree is better than none, he said.

Allen said Memorial Day is not the first time he has had a run-in with Oppenlander and said his now-deceased grandmother would butt heads with him as well when she was still alive. “(She) would probably be in jail right now if she saw the state (of the cemetery),” he said. “It’s kind of heartbreaking.”

But, Nelson said, their complaints go nowhere.

Though cemeteries are required to have a permanent maintenance or “perpetual care” fund (a percentage of which comes from the purchase of grave plots) and to provide financial information to the Kansas Secretary of State’s office, there is not a specific agency that oversees and handles complaints regarding private cemeteries.

V. Kay Curtis, with the Kansas Secretary of State’s office, said though the office audits cemeteries, complaints should be sent to the Attorney General’s office.

Nelson also said she contacted the Better Business Bureau, which indicated other complaints have been made about Valley View and looked into whether there was a board overseeing the property.

But while there used to be a private board, Oppenlander said it was disbanded about six years ago at the behest of one of its members.

As for the complaints, Oppenlander said it has just been “one of those years.”

He said that his health has not been very good and that he has also been taking care of his 91-year-old mother who had a stroke.

Oppenlander is the only person who maintains the cemetery as there is no money for help. The only profits that come in, he said, are the sporadic plot purchases and money through the selling of headstones, which can go for a few thousand dollars. He charges a $250 fee, he said, to those who purchase a headstone elsewhere. Additionally, some money is made from funerals.

Oppenlander believes the critics are only a vocal minority and said the cemetery means a lot to him. He became the manager of Valley View Memorial Gardens in 1988, and the owner in 1998, following years of care by Pottawatomie County after a previous owner was said to have absconded with all of the profits from sold plots in the 1960s.

According to records obtained by the Pottawatomie County Courthouse, a petition was filed in April 1969 by then-Attorney General Kent Frizzell, stating that the cemetery had failed to file an annual report and failed to pay annual fees for the year 1965 and that a charter board had declared the charter of Valley View Memorial Gardens forfeited.

In his petition, Frizzell requested that a “receivor,” who would look over the cemetery, be appointed, and in May 1969, Burke Bayer, Oppenlander’s uncle, was granted that receivorship.

Oppenlander said the cemetery was in bankruptcy for more than 20 years.

According to court documents, Bayer petitioned to terminate his receivorship in 1998, so that it could be turned over to Oppenlander.

Oppenlander said the state wanted it out of the court system and once again into private hands and said nobody wanted it but him. “It was kind of an orphan affair,” he said.

“If I thought people weren’t happy, I would turn it back to the county,” Oppenlander said.

Oppenlander has plans to add more plots to a currently empty stretch of the cemetery that will be named after the Last Supper, It would join the current Garden of Christus, Garden of Devotion and Babyland sections.

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