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  • Jordan D. Smith

Portland Twp Responds to Cemetery Maintenance Criticism

We all hope that our final resting place will be a place for our earthly remains to rest in peace where our loved ones can remember us for years to come. For Private Adam Lewis, an early area resident, that was not to be. Private Lewis fought with the New York cavalry during the War of 1812 to keep our fledgling country from once again falling under the power of Great Britain. Years later, Lewis relocated to the newly minted State of Michigan and settled in what is now Portland Township. He died in 1864 as our country was fighting yet another war--one that pitted brother against brother. Little did he know that his final resting place would create controversy all these years later.

As previously reported in the Ionia Sentinel Standard and Fox17, social media posts first began circulating more than a week ago alleging that the Union (Musser) Burial Ground on Keefer Highway had been “abandoned” by the township. Since that time, a group of volunteers converged on the site to stage a cleanup. Also, at their July 10th meeting, the township board contracted with a sexton with expertise in maintaining historic gravesites to care for the site.

As your local news and information source, the Beacon believes it is important to hold elected officials accountable, but it is equally important to share all sides of contentious issues. Previous coverage by other news sources did not give Portland Township officials the chance to respond to the criticism leveled against them. To bring you that side of the story, we reached out to Portland Township Supervisor Christian Jensen for comment.

Jensen was quick to dispute several points starting with the assertion that the township had “abandoned” the cemetery. “We never made this decision, and never abandoned it. Portland Township would never ignore or dishonor the memory of our past residents, especially a veteran,” Jensen stated. For many years, the cemetery, the only one in the township, was cared for by volunteers and prior to the 1980s was private property. According to records retrieved by Township Clerk Charlene Keilen, the property was deeded to the township in 1984. Jensen has served on the township board since 2013, and none of the current board members were in office in 1984.

Supervisor Jensen also denies that the issue was first brought to the attention of the township by social media campaigning. “Last month I was driving by and stopped. It appeared to me there had been no maintenance done this year so I reported this at the June Board meeting,” and placed the issue on the agenda for the July 8th meeting he said. In the meantime, the township clerk tried unsuccessfully to contact the volunteers who had done maintenance in the past.

“I have no idea who would have told anyone we had abandoned it as that is not true at all. The cemetery may have been abandoned by previous owners but not by Portland Township. Once we discovered it was not being maintained, we took action and awarded the contract [for maintenance by a sexton] at our July 10 meeting. This would have happened regardless of any social media discussions as it had been in the works prior to all of that,” Township Supervisor Jensen insisted.

One thing all sides can agree on is the value that volunteers add to the community. “Townships rely on volunteerism to function…,” said Jensen. In the past, local Boy Scouts did projects at the cemetery, and when the need for help arose on social media it took only a matter of days for scores of volunteers to step forward to help. Jensen says he met with volunteers who converged on the site last week and, “thanked them and let them know the township had hired a company to take care of things as the gravestones could be very fragile.”

Going forward, additional restoration work may be in store for the site based upon the recommendation of the sexton hired by the township. Jensen says he plans to report on this issue to the board at their next meeting. Regardless of how events unfolded, local resident Carolyn Heckman is quick to praise the hard work of volunteers who have included her children Clair and Grady in the past. “The cemetery is our ‘neighbor down the road’ and our family is so happy to see it get cared for,” said Heckman.

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