SIERRA VISTA — Cochise Memory Gardens co-owner Melvin Harter knows the cemetery is not in the shape it should be.
“When you’re going down Charleston Road, it looks terrible over here. This cemetery represents our city,” he said, “and if the cemetery looks terrible, it makes a bad reflection on our city. That’s what I think. We want this place to be beautiful.”
Currently, the grounds do have some green, thanks to the rainy season, but Harter said they are working to ensure the garden will have more than dirt and rocks year-round.
“It looks a little green out there only because of the rain we had. If we didn’t have this monsoon, it’d all be dry,” he said during an interview Tuesday morning.
The cemetery is separated into different areas, or gardens, some of which are decades old and present challenges to maintain. Many of the gravesites are so close together, bringing in equipment for maintenance is nearly impossible.
“It gets a little nervous,” Harter said. “Sometimes you only have an inch between a backhoe or truck and a gravestone.”
Work is underway to bring irrigation and a new sprinkler system to the entirety of the grounds, a large portion of which has no system, or an old system that doesn’t work any longer. Harter said he has tried for years to address the issue.
“One guy put in a system in one of the gardens, but it just didn’t work, so we are pulling that all out and redoing it,” he said.
It would be a lot of work for Harter and his team of around 10 employees, which is why he’s bringing in outside help.
“We really need to get some professional people in to do this,” he said.
Harter turned to Grasshopper Landscaping, which he said had done work for them in the past, to completely redo the irrigation system, adding lines to sections that haven’t had a dedicated water source in years, if ever.
Having a new system installed “will be a big shot in the arm for us,” he said.
He said the plan is to start installing the system in the next few weeks, and grass reseeding will begin in September as well. The goal is to have everything done by winter.
“This year should be the first time that’s going to be done — all the gardens will be green,” he said.
That comes as good news to residents like Terese Ellis, who recently took to Facebook to express her frustration with conditions at the cemetery.
“I am embarrassed of the upkeep of our cemetery,” she wrote in June. “It is dirt and weeds.”
She also said in the post that the owners did not keep their word to have grass by 2015. Ellis did not return a Herald/Review request for additional comment.
Statewide, cemeteries are licensed by the Arizona Department of Real Estate. Deputy Commissioner Louis Dettorre said no complaints have been lodged against Cochise Memory Gardens.
“If a consumer has a complaint or issue with a private cemetery, they are welcome to file a complaint with the department for review,” Dettorre said. “If the complaint is not within the department’s purview, the consumer would be notified.”
Harter said he understands the frustrations that people like Ellis have expressed, and welcomes anyone with a concern to come speak with him.
“We just need them to come and tell us,” he said, adding that he tries to speak with as many visitors as possible and explain the situation to them.
“If they see anything that needs to be repaired, come and share it with us and we’ll get it taken care of,” he said.
“Not a lot of money was being put into this place for a long time,” he added. “That’s what we’re trying to do now; put some money into it, turn it around and make it a beautiful place.”
He said a well system on the site needed replacing, which cost about $10,000. The facility will also need a new water tank soon — the 6,000-gallon tank currently being used dates back to the late ‘50s. A replacement could cost up to $80,000, he said.
In addition to the irrigation system, Harter said they will be planting more trees, adding a sidewalk and developing an area where people can come and spend some time in tranquility. A revamp of the administrative building and parking lot is also in the works.
“When you come here, you should be able to feel relaxed, at peace. So that’s my job, and I endeavor to accomplish that,” he said.
Harter said although some people have been critical of the grounds, others realize how much work has already taken place.
“We have a lot of people who appreciate what we have done,” he said. “Folks have said, ‘We’re so glad you’re here, we hope you never leave. You’ve really turned this thing around.’ “
Still, the process is slow, Harter admits.
“I wish we had all the money in the world; we could just go ahead and do it right now, but we can’t,” he said. “We just have to take it one step at a time.”
That effort hasn’t been just Harter and his employees, he said. They have had “tremendous help from the community,” including groups of Boy Scouts who have been there several times to contribute.
“They just pitched in, they did a super job helping us,” he said.
Buena High School students, as well as people doing community service and other volunteers, have also made a difference.
“It’s been a real blessing to us, we appreciate that,” Harter said. “We can use all the help we can get.”
He said he and his wife, Roberta, aren’t looking to get rich from the business, and oftentimes work with folks to make sure final arrangements can be made as smoothly as possible.
Harter said he is excited for the future plans they have for the cemetery, and hopes the community will be excited and continue to support them, as well.
“I think we’re on the right track to making it an asset to our community, something people can be proud of,” he said. “And if people are proud of it and it’s beautiful, this is where they’re going to want to come.”