Valley View Memorial Gardens has seen better days.
If it wasn’t for the sign just before the entrance, drivers heading east out of Manhattan on Highway 24 might wonder why someone had placed rows of flowers in parts of a tree-lined, sparsely mowed field.
Even upon closer inspection, many of the cemetery’s 500 grave markers are hard to locate. Uncontrolled weeds and untrimmed grass cover stone plaques in both mowed and unmowed sections.
“I just find it hugely disrespectful when you can’t even make out the headstones,” said Elaine Bruckerhoff of Manhattan, whose uncle and great-grandmother are buried at Valley View.
Bruckerhoff has been visiting her relative’s graves ever since she was little. She always heads to the same spot.
But last Saturday evening, Bruckerhoff had trouble recognizing where her relatives are buried.
“You couldn’t even see it,” she said. “You could not even tell there were two spots there.”
Valley View’s owner, Lyle Oppenlander, 69, also of Manhattan, was at the cemetery when Bruckerhoff last visited. She said he came over to apologize while she was pulling the grass and weeds from around the stones.
Oppenlander told her that he’s had recent problems with his lawn mower.
“He seems to be putting a whole lot on his mowers,” Bruckerhoff said, noting she’s tried to have “nice” conversations with Oppenlander. “But I think he’s gotten to a point where he needs some help.”
In a separate phone interview, Oppenlander said he’s the only one who handles groundskeeping duties at the cemetery.
“I’ve been having machinery problems and kind of got behind,” he said. “With all the rain, I can’t get out there and mow —because of the rain — and it grows like crazy.”
Brandy Moorman, of Manhattan, has visited Valley View daily since Memorial Day. She said Oppenlander takes care of small sections, not the entire cemetery.
“He mows strips,” she said in a phone interview. “And then he doesn’t weed out around the headstones.”
Bruckerhoff’s had similar experiences and said she now brings a weed trimmer with her when she visits the cemetery.
“We shouldn’t have to bring our own lawn mower or Weed Eater to honor our loved ones,” she said.
Bruckerhoff believes it may be time for Oppenlander to seek help maintaining Valley View.
“I don’t think he’s ill-intended,” she said. “I just think he’s not recognizing that he’s at his limit.”
Oppenlander said he understands the concerns.
He’s been trying to catch up on mowing since Memorial Day.
“Well, we don’t have a lot of funds,” he said regarding the slow pace. “I more or less volunteer my work because of the (lack of) funding.”
A money shortage was one of the reasons Oppenlander cited for Valley View’s condition almost a year ago when The Mercury first published a story on the same issue. At the time, Oppenlander said the cemetery only profits through periodic plot purchases, headstone purchases and, sometimes, funerals.
As chronicled in last year’s story, the cemetery has been in and out of financial straits since the 1960s. Oppenlander became the cemetery’s manager in 1988 and owner in 1998.
Oppenlander last year said his health hadn’t been very good and he’d been busy taking care of his mother.
This year, his lawn mowers have repeatedly broken down. Plus, it has rained — a lot — and he’s again gotten behind.
“It’s just me and the rain,” Oppenlander said.
More recently, Oppenlander’s been able to mow some of the property, including a section where a new grave marker was installed over the gravesite of Trevor Redding, a 17-year-old Randolph boy who was killed in a car accident in October.
Oppenlander spent most of Tuesday installing the marker. On Wednesday morning, he called Trevor’s mother, Sandy Redding, to let her know he’d finished.
Oppenlander’s call was just in time. Redding had been pressuring him to have it installed by Wednesday.
“My son’s birthday is today, and I said, ‘Well at least have it by his birthday,’” Redding said Wednesday morning while visiting her son’s grave. “And he installed it.”
Redding walked around Trevor’s grave marker, adjusting the flowers. She noticed the section where her son is buried had been mowed recently but that some nearby grave markers were still covered by weeds.
Other parts of the cemetery remained completely covered in weeds.
The cemetery could look much better, Redding said, but it hasn’t always been as bad as it’s gotten.
“It looked really pretty good (on) Memorial Day,” she said. “It was mowed and everybody had flowers.”
However, unlike Redding, Bruckerhoff didn’t recall the cemetery’s condition as being much better for the holiday.
“It was in a sad state on Memorial Day,” she said. “That’s just really embarrassing.”
Many people have grown tired of Valley View’s appearance. Just as they did last year, some have sent letters to the Kansas Secretary of State’s office, which is charged with auditing cemeteries.
Secretary of State Public Affairs Director Kay Curtis confirmed the office has received the letters, but forwarded them to the Attorney General’s Office Consumer Protection Division.
Curtis added that the Secretary of State’s office only audits cemeteries to make sure maintenance is properly funded, as required by state statute. The Attorney General’s Office will determine whether any violation of the law has occurred.
“We’re told (the letters) are in the hands of the Consumer Protection Division,” Curtis said. “We’re basically just waiting to hear from the Attorney General’s Office on what they’re going to do.”
Moorman, who submitted one of the complaints, said she’ll be waiting to hear back from the state.
“They said that they would do their investigation, or whatever,” she said.
Meanwhile, Oppenlander is hoping the rain holds back so he can catch up.
If that happens, he said he could have the cemetery spruced up by July 4.
“It’ll work itself out,” Oppenlander said. “It just takes time.”