Kids climb trees, especially in Arkansas.
But tombstones built to resemble tree trunks are a potential hazard to children, said Bob Young of Fayetteville.
On Dec. 10, 2016, Trevor Walling, 8, of Pleasant Plains, died after being crushed by 5-foot-tall, 1,200-pound Woodmen of the World tree-trunk tombstone that he was climbing in Dry Creek Cemetery at Lynn. He had attended a birthday party at the church next door.
"It was a horrible tragedy for the community," said detective Andrew Turner of the Lawrence County sheriff's office.
Trevor's death vaulted Young on a campaign to repair the hundreds of Woodmen of the World tree-trunk tombstones across Arkansas, but it's a daunting endeavor.
As time passes, the mortar often washes out between the base and the tombstone, leaving it unstable, said Young, who is the administrator at Evergreen Cemetery in Fayetteville. Many tombstones can simply be pushed over at that point.
Young said most of the Woodmen of the World tombstones in Arkansas are about 100 years old.
"This is a special project I want to do because of this child's death," Young said. "These are in cemeteries all over everywhere, and nobody's addressing this issue. This could happen in any cemetery in any county across the country on any given day."
Young is targeting the Woodmen of the World tombstones because of their tree-trunk design. They are massive, and they attract climbing children, he said. The design of the markers, sometimes called treestones, often includes ivy and the stubs of limbs, which provide footholds.
"What we're focusing on is the ones that are the most dangerous," he said. "I consider these things -- like you would consider a swimming pool -- to be an attractive nuisance to children."
Young said the mortar had washed away between the base and the tombstone that fell in Dry Creek Cemetery.
"The water seeps in there," he said. "Then it freezes, and it breaks the bond."
The fallen tombstone at Dry Creek Cemetery was installed for W.L. Lewsaw, who died in 1909.
"He lived a quiet and peaceable life," according to his epitaph.
The tombstone was leaning before Trevor climbed on it, Young said.
"It was close to a tree, and the tree root upheaved it," he said. "The child got up on it, and it just fell over."
Young went to Dry Creek Cemetery in October and repaired Lewsaw's tombstone. He also helped repair two similar tombstones in the cemetery that were leaning.
Young is beginning his statewide effort by taking an inventory of tombstones across Arkansas that were installed by Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society, a not-for-profit fraternal benefit society founded in 1890 and based in Omaha, Neb.
Young has found three dozen Woodmen of the World treestones in Washington County alone, and only three of them are secured at the base. Six of the tombstones are in Evergreen Cemetery, which is the final resting place for such notable Arkansans as Gov. Archibald Yell, U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright and architect Edward Durell Stone.
Woodmen of the World used to provide tombstones to policyholders.
"We appreciate this gentleman's efforts, but ultimately we don't condone anybody playing on anything in a cemetery, out of respect," said Kerry Heinrich, director of marketing communications for the company. "We don't give out those tombstones anymore. Ultimately, the families should maintain them, but I know that's hard too."
Heinrich said she wasn't familiar with the incident at Dry Creek Cemetery.
"Unfortunately, I have no knowledge about this particular cemetery or the actual tombstones in question, so any comment would be misplaced without such familiarity," she said in an email. "However, we remain hopeful that the cemetery properly maintains the cemetery and keeps it safe for visitors."
Young said he's not pointing fingers.
"I don't want anyone to perceive that this is a liability issue," he said. "Some people have this corporate mentality that if you get involved, that's implied liability. Well, no, it's not."
Abby Burnett of Kingston, an expert on Ozark Mountain burial customs, said not all of the tree-trunk tombstones in Arkansas were installed by Woodmen of the World.
"Trees represent the life cut short and were a popular mourning symbol," she said.
Young said he has repaired 42 tombstones in Evergreen Cemetery because the mortar had washed away between the base and the marker. Some of the tombstones had steel pins to hold them in place, but that caused cracking of the stone after the steel began to rust. He said the tombstones can weigh 225 pounds per cubic foot or more.
"The first step is you level the base, and then you get things secured to the base," Young said.
Young uses a "setting compound" that includes epoxies to seal the joint between the base and the tombstone.
The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program awards grants for cemetery restoration, conservation, preservation and stabilization, said Holly Hope, a special projects historian there.
But Young said his project doesn't qualify for those grants because the program awards only one grant per cemetery per grant cycle, and only cemeteries on the National Register of Historic Places are eligible for the grants. Young wants to repair specific tombstones that are in many Arkansas cemeteries, including those not on the National Register.
"I'm trying to get help," Young said. "I would like to start here in Northwest Arkansas and spread out across the state. ... I just can't on my own go to all of these outlying cemeteries."
Hope said she doesn't know of any other grant programs for which Young's project might qualify.
In the meantime, Young urges people to be careful in cemeteries, where tombstones might be precariously perched on the base.
"Don't assume that all of these are secure," he said.
Young said anyone who knows the location of Woodmen of the World treestones can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This 2016 photo shows where an 8-year-old boy died that December after a Woodmen of the World tombstone he was climbing on broke and crushed him at Dry Creek Cemetery in Lynn.
Metro on 05/27/2018
Print Headline: Accident shines light on aging gravestones