With her parents, grandparents, and in-laws all buried there, Marquita Latta said her family has been investing in plots at Oakland Cemetery in Hampton since 1952 with the promise the graves would receive “perpetual care” — she asked, “where does that money go?”
In her time visiting the cemetery owned by Allen Simmons and Oakland Estates LLC., Latta said she’s seen headstones collapsed, coffins floated, and most of all, the land overgrown to the point families lose visibility of their loved ones’ headstones.
Latta has headed the project to organize volunteers for maintaining the land since 2005, but now at 70 years old, she said it’s become more difficult and a full-time job to operate push a lawnmower and preserve history.
“It’s historic, established in 1861…there are a lot of Civil War soldiers buried in there and Hampton is a very heavy stronghold for Civil War history…it’s very historical,” she said.
Albeit historical, Latta said other than The Hampton Clean City Commission providing trash bags and gloves while other private organizations have contributed volunteers over the years, the city has stayed hands-off when it comes to the privately-owned cemeteries across Hampton.
“Cemeteries that we don’t know the ownership of, the city can’t get reimbursed for the work they do and there’s a little bit more liability going onto cemeteries than you do on to someone’s front yard,” said Robin McCormick, a city spokeswoman. “You’ve got sometimes very old headstones, you’ve got a lot of other things there.”
While a city code section allows city workers to go onto residents’ private property in the case of an overgrown lawn, McCormick said the code doesn’t apply to abandoned cemeteries where the city could possibly be exposed to those liabilities.
Latta said the same about volunteers who take on the responsibility to clean cemeteries that are also, and maybe unknowingly, taking on any liability that comes with it.
“When individuals want to go in and clean up a private cemetery, who’s going to be responsible if somebody gets hurt? Who’s going to be responsible if they damage something? There’s a lot of liability there if you’re not willing to stand up and take the heat for it,” she said.
Another unkempt cemetery at 53 Woodland Road was bought by Lewis and Geneva Wilkerson in 1969, according to city records but both owners have since died and are buried there in their cemetery.
“Presumably the owners are whoever their heirs are,” McCormick said.
Latta has recently retired as a “cemetery advocate” after she said she’s done her best to address City Council and plead with city officials to go after abandoned cemetery owners for overdue and mounting taxes.
And, while she called it a “thankless job,” Latta said she’ll continue her service with her work in grave dowsing, or assisting families in locating their loved ones’ unmarked graves and maintaining her position as Oakland Cemetery’s unofficial historian.
“This is history…if you walk into a cemetery you can see this is somebody’s family, this is somebody’s genealogy, this is somebody’s history,” she said.
To volunteer for cemetery cleanup or for more information about Marquita Latta’s cause, click here.