(Columbia County, Oregon) – Columbia County’s cemeteries are seeing new life thanks to the recent efforts of the Columbia County Corrections Work Crew, and according to those involved, it’s having a big impact on the offenders now tending to the grounds.
According to Community Service Coordinator David Brooke, about five months ago, the Rainier Cemetery District was scrambling to find new ways to keep the grass cut. Their usual landscaper, responsible for maintaining 13 cemeteries and the more than 13,000 gravestones they contain across Columbia County, was retiring soon.
“That’s when we stepped in,” Brooke said, explaining someone from the cemetery district’s board reached out after seeing the work crew in action at one of the many parks they help maintain. “They were in some rough shape.”
Work Crew Supervisor Jeremy Kaufman, now with the crew for two years, said many of the gravestones were overgrown. Debris and garbage littered the cemeteries’ landscape, along with downed tree limbs from high winds and invasive blackberry bushes reclaiming portions of the properties.
The Work Crew initially pitched in for free as a part of the nonprofit work they’re able to do outside of their usual contracts maintaining parks and trails for the City of St. Helens, the Port of Columbia County and other agencies. But, Brooke said, they weren’t able to give the district enough time for the work that was truly required to bring the cemeteries back into shape.
Kaufman found out about their landscaper retiring and stepped up to ask if this was something they could take off the district’s hands until they found a replacement. Brooke said he thought their crew had impressed the district, and so their newly contracted work began in April.
“We started at the top of Rainier Hill and just slowly worked our way through the rest of the cemeteries of Columbia County,” Kaufman said on Friday afternoon, May 28, on location with the crew at Neer City Cemetery. “Just cleaning them up and respecting the dead.”
Beyond the benefit to the cemeteries, Brooke and Kaufman both agree the work has had a discernible impact on the offenders themselves. These offenders are not in custody and come to the Work Crew through several different streams. Some are paying off court fines, while others have been assigned a certain number of hours by the courts for crimes they’ve committed within Columbia County, perhaps through parole or probation.
Normally, their work sees them maintaining parks and Kaufman said they typically want to come in and get the day over with - it’s menial work to them. But the work at the cemeteries is a bit more consuming because they are more often working with the equipment that requires headphones to protect their hearing.
“So, you can’t hear or see much, and they’re reading the headstones,” Kaufman said. “They’re noticing families, they’re noticing a lot of these are overgrown and no one is taking care of them - someone the other day mentioned seeing a headstone of someone that was three years old and they asked to take a minute and step aside. There’s a lot of recognition of, ‘Oh, we did a good job today. We’re bettering our community.’”
Ross Clark, who came to the work crew by way of probation to pay off supervision fees, said he found the work unexpected.
“We usually clean up overgrown areas like at the Scappoose Airport or McCormick Park. This is really different. It’s kind of sad. Their names are overgrown. If I had a relative here I wouldn’t even be able to find their gravestone the way it is now. Someone will appreciate this. If I were buried here, I’d appreciate not being buried and forgotten,” Clark said.
Kaufman said he regularly sees the work crew take extra time to clean moss and other growth away from the gravestones, and none of their work requires the usual motivation the parks do. Brooke said it’s something they can take pride in while building life skills to prepare them for moving on in life.
“These are all people who have gotten into some kind of trouble in Columbia County,” Kaufman said. “And when you’re at a hard point in your life, it’s easy to get off track. Things happen quick in life, and this is kind of a reminder of that.”
For more information on the Rainier Cemetery District, visit: https://www.rainiercemeterydistrict.com/
For more information on Columbia County’s Community Justice Programs for Adults, visit: https://www.columbiacountyor.gov/departments/CommunityJustice/community-justice-programs-for-adults