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Forgotten cemetery gets Halloween makeover
Raena Honan excavates a grave marker in the children's section of Peaceful Valley Memorial Park. (James Bauerle/Arizona Daily Sun)

The sun is setting on a field of dusty burrs and weeds as Raena Honan sweeps away dirt covering part of a headstone with her hand.

The dead resting near Campbell Mesa and Old Walnut Canyon Road are forgotten to most, save a few family members.

The unmaintained Peaceful Valley Memorial Park in Continental has a vacant prairie dog burrow about every foot and is closed to new burials by state order.

Someone has apparently been sleeping on some pillows near the white cross and rock walls that serve as the only major markers.

Honan and other volunteers propose to make some improvements and find and map the missing gravestones — the cemetery's owners live far away, and the money to cover maintenance of the cemetery was somehow raided long ago.

"There are a lot of beer bottles and junk in here, so we're going to try to clean it up," she said.

A dozen or more individuals were expected to make rounds on Halloween cleaning the cemetery.

Now a Coconino County employee who organizes programs for seniors, Honan formerly organized burials for those who had no families and couldn't afford a plot.

She finds a few dozen grave markers in a first look, though there are likely about 137 buried here, said Dave Hammel, one of the cemetery's 16 faraway owners whose wife received the cemetery long ago through inheritance.

WORLD WAR II VETS

The dead include World War II veterans and quite a few children.

One was a U.S. Marine who died in 2000.

Some were born in the 1880s.

"When we go over there Memorial Day, all there is is dirt, dust and weeds. It's pretty bad. It's in sad shape," said Bob Reyes, American Legion Post adjutant.

They put flags at veterans' graves on Memorial Day.

He and others once dug out a veteran's headstone that they had remembered after it sank 2 feet in the mud and snow.

A lot of the grave markers are also sinking into the mud during winters, Reyes said, and he had one wife of a vet who wanted her husband moved from the place into another cemetery but couldn't afford it.

Some of his group's military families still maintain graves there.

Of the many vets from multiple wars probably buried there, Reyes could find 13.

MAINTENANCE FUND VANISHED

Hammel, 85, once counted and photographed and cleaned off the headstones with his son.

He had wanted to sell the land for development and have the graves moved elsewhere for a cost of about $500 apiece. But that seems infeasible to him because the area is flood-prone and he couldn't get clearance to build it higher.

"We don't know what to do about the piece of land. We feel terribly about the circumstances, because we feel that it should be maintained and it should be used," Hammel said.

The cemetery once belonged to a West Valley doctor who died in Seattle and left the property to her four sisters.

Somehow, the fund to maintain the cemetery vanished along with a financial adviser, Hammel said.

The land was passed to many children (including Hammel's wife), until some ended up with about a 1 percent ownership, Hammel said.

He had been trying to figure out what to do with the cemetery for two decades, and had hoped the city of Flagstaff would buy it.

The city last discussed that in the 1990s, said Deputy City Manager Jim Wine, but recognized it would be expensive to fence the place, maintain it, mow it, water it and add other needed improvements.

PULLED OFF MARKET

Bank chief executive Rick Beeson, of St. Paul, Minn., is now the leader of the group of owners trying to decide what to do with the cemetery.

He has pulled the 11-acre property off the market, but plans to put it up for sale again in the spring, possibly to a developer, a church or someone wanting to graze horses.

Development would require the excavation and reburial of those buried now, and permission to raise the area out of a flood zone.

"We would like to sell it to a house of worship if we could. I think that would be a nice use," Beeson said.

If there is no sale, there is also the possibility of allowing someone with a tax-related lien on the property to take it.

Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at ccole@azdailysun.com.

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