Roy Hearn, owner of P.K. Miller Cemetery, said he is the proud owner of one of the oldest black-owned cemeteries in Pine Bluff. However, the newest owner’s care of the property has recently come under scrutiny.
While some burial sites at the historic site — the final resting place for some of Pine Bluff’s most prominent citizens — are free of debris and well kept, others are desperately neglected and seem to have been that way for some time. But Hearn said that the upkeep of the property is not his sole responsibility.
The property, originally owned by Wiley Jones, a former slave said to have been the owner of some of the most valuable real estate in the city and owner of the Wiley Jones Street Car Line, was purchased by P.K. Miller in 1929.
Miller, himself an established and well-respected businessman, continued his reputation of excellence with the cemetery.
That foundation may be a thing of the past, according to at least one concerned patron. In a letter to the editor recently published in The Pine Bluff Commercial, the author states that the property, well over 100 years old, is not living up to its former glory.
The letter’s author reported visiting the cemetery on Mother’s Day and finding that “this once beautiful and respected cemetery has fallen into rubble and disrepair.”
“She (the author of the letter) is 75 percent correct,” said Hearn, who purchased the property in 1991 from Judith Miller, the daughter who took over the business after her parents died. “But what she fails to realize is the age of this cemetery and that no cemetery looks good when it’s raining.”
Hearn said he actually appreciates the criticism, but anyone making judgment needs to put things in perspective. In answer to the complaint about raw sewage standing in ditches, Hearn said, “There are no bathrooms, so there is nowhere it could come from. What she saw is mud.”
A visit to the property by a Commercial reporter after the letter was published supported much of the writer’s complaints. A driveway with large potholes led to grounds drenched from recent rains and in need of attention. Stagnant, odorous water filled ditches running around and through graves and fallen branches laid across paths.
Overturned tombstones and graves overgrown with weeds were visibly neglected. Some graves seemed to have sunk below ground level. Large stuffed trash bags and more broken branches surrounded several trees.
In striking contrast were several plots that were manicured and decorated with flowers. Hearn, also the owner of Perry Funeral Home in Pine Bluff, said that because the property is not a perpetual care cemetery — one that has access to endowments to cover maintenance expenses — families are ultimately responsible for taking care of their loved ones’ burial sites.
“Technically, they own the land their family is buried on, not me,” he said. “They bought the ground, they own those graves.”
Still, Hearn said he has gone to great expense to maintain the property.
“Any cemetery without perpetual care and not supported by tax dollars is a burden,” Hearn said. “But I was willing to take on that burden.”
Hearn said the property, which is the target of regular vandalism, gets thoroughly cleaned each year. Trash is picked up regularly and the grass mowed twice per month. He said he periodically pays someone to straighten tombstones.
“Cleanup is an ongoing process,” he said. “But it would help if those visiting the cemetery would pick up their trash before they leave.”
Former owner Judith Miller has not seen the property recently but said it was in good shape when she sold it to Hearn.
“I sold it because it’s a money pit,” she said. “There is no profit in a privately owned cemetery unless you have huge resources or a lot of graves left to sell.”
Miller said vandalism has always been bad but it has gotten worse in recent years.
“It happens even at the veteran’s cemetery,” Miller said. “They go in to get the copper from the headstones.”
Miller agrees that family members have to take part in the beautification process, but added that many of the people who are buried in that cemetery have been there so long that their family members are deceased as well, and others who might be alive seldom come to visit.
“Some people only come once or twice around a holiday and you never see them again,” Miller said.
Robert Wallace, one of Hearn’s employees, was working at the cemetery but put down his weed-eater to comment. He confirmed that he cuts the grass twice a month, with one exception.
“When it rains, we can’t get out here sometimes for weeks because of standing water,” he said. “But I get out here and take care of it because all my relatives are out here, and I like things done right.”
Wallace, who has worked for Hearn for five years, offered his evaluation.
“The problem is drainage,” Wallace said. “That’s what causes all the water to be here for so long.”
When asked about the trash gathered around the graves, Wallace said the man who does maintenance had gathered it but would be back to pick it up later. On a second visit a few days later, the trash had been removed, but after more rain, the water stood above many of the graves. Most areas were still in need of mowing.
Hearn agreed there is a drainage problem and said a crew is working to correct the problem. Both Wallace and Hearn, saying that maintenance at the cemetery is comparable to that of days gone by, said anyone who has any doubt about the care of the cemetery should come back after the rainy season.