Cemetery Cleanup

Keith Blanchard readies to help with Birch Hill Cemetery clean up day as his wife, Amanda, and son, Nick, collect bags from the side of the road. Blanchard Family Funeral Home held a clean up weekend for the cemetery over Saturday and Sunday. Kyrie Long/News-Miner

Cemetery clean up is messy work, especially after it rains, but despite working for hours across a dozen acres of land the day before, a few volunteers roused themselves out of bed Sunday morning to tend to gravesites for the second day in a row.

“I like to volunteer with the Elks Lodge periodically on things that I think that need it, really,” said Kari Nations, who parked alongside rows of graves on Sunday to help clean up Birch Hill Cemetery.

Nations started her Sunday as the first person to arrive for the second day of raking and bagging up leaves. She parked alongside the Elks Lodge 1551 plot and pulled on her gloves to begin working.

She said she’s participated in Birch Hill Cemetery Clean Up Day for a few years and finds it rewarding.

Cemetery Cleanup

Keith Blanchard and his son, Nick, gather branches and bags of leaves to remove from Birch Hill Cemetery on Sunday. Kyrie Long/News-Miner

“I’m glad I did it this year,” she said, between stuffing handfuls of leaves into a garbage bag. “There hardly was very many people to volunteer, but I like to see what it looks like afterwards. I like to see the accomplishment.”

Nations brought her teenagers with her the first day, but decided to let them stay home on the second day.

“They like to help,” she said. “It was a workout though.”

Instead of helpers on Sunday she brought along bundles of red, white and blue flowers, to place along some of the graves in the Elks Lodge section of the cemetery.

Arriving behind Nations was Geoffrey Ackerman and his son, Owen. Ackerman brought a leaf blower and helped start up Nations’ weed whacker, to do some cleanup around grave edges.

“It’s just a nice time to give back to the community and help out, and this is a good cause,” Ackerman said.

He also took the opportunity to visit his grandmother’s burial site, a little farther uphill from the Elks Lodge plot he helped clean up Sunday.

When they arrived Saturday, Ackerman said a lot of the raking had already been done. The Sunday game plan was to scour the rest of the area, closer to the bottom of Birch Hill, re-rake and look at mowing some of the area.

“We’re going to get all the leaves and whatnot,” Ackerman said.

Cemetery Cleanup

Gary Evans, with Fairbanks Lodge No. 12, takes a bag to be hauled away from Birch Hill Cemetery. Kyrie Long/News-Miner

He added he hasn’t participated in cleanup day before, but his son’s mom thought it would be a good idea, so they went.

Karisse Ackerman came to the cemetery later in the day to help clean up the Elks plot. She and Geoffrey are not members of the Elks, but she said her son received a scholarship from the local lodge and she felt it would be a nice way to give back.

Birch Hill Cemetery spans 12 acres on the east side of the Steese Highway, next to Shannon Park Subdivision. The first day of clean up lasted four hours, according to Keith Blanchard, who owns and runs Blanchard Family Funeral Home.

“Every spring, we try to get all the groups that have different sections of the cemetery,” Blanchard said.

Cemetery Cleanup

Geoffrey Ackerman clears leaves away from a grave in the Elks Lodge 1551 section of Birch Hill Cemetery. Kyrie Long/News-Miner

The Elks Lodge, the Pioneers of Alaska, the American Legion and more groups have designated sections for members around the cemetery. Blanchard said cleaning up the hill in spring makes the cemetery easier to maintain for the rest of the year.

Blanchard sits on the board for the Birch Hill Cemetery Association, the nonprofit organization that owns the cemetery. He said the property was initially owned by the Zimmerman family, who homesteaded in Fairbanks farther uphill of where the cemetery is located and eventually gave the property to the city.

Fairbanks encounters flooding after breakup, which can cause maintenance problems in cemeteries, according to Blanchard, and having the cemetery on the hill can mitigate some of these issues.

On Saturday, the first day of the cleanup, Blanchard said approximately 100 people turned up to help with the efforts. The evidence of their work lingered Sunday in groupings of black garbage bags placed off to the side of pathways.

Although a lot of the older graves are denoted by large tombstones, crosses or gravemarkers, Blanchard said the cemetery has seen fewer “full body” burials in recent years.

Cemetery Cleanup

Karisse Ackerman and Nick Blanchard gather leaves off of a gravesite, while Keith Blanchard collects them in a trash bag. Blanchard Family Funeral Home and other volunteers cleaned up Birch Hill Cemetery over the weekend. Kyrie Long/News-Miner

“Fairbanks all in all is about 80% cremation,” he said, “so we don’t see as many casket burials as we used to, but a lot of people have their ashes interred there.”

Blanchard arrived later in the day on Sunday, to load a truck borrowed from a friend and haul off all the bags of debris from the past two days of clean up efforts. His son, Nick, and his wife, Amanda, also came to help load leaves and drive the truck around the cemetery.

Other volunteers trickled in on Sunday afternoon, as well.

Fairbanks Masonic Lodge No. 12 Worshipful Master Gary Evans said prior to this weekend, the Fairbanks Lodge hadn’t been to the cemetery for Clean Up Day since the mid-2000s.

“It’s been a little while since we’ve gone out here and did this,” Evans said, “and we just need to clean it up.”

Evans and some of his lodge members came through, mowed and trimmed the masonic area, then used brooms to tidy up some of the headstones.

He added that they worked in collaboration with the Prince Hall Masons, who have been coming out annually to tend to the graves.

Hardy Louihis, with Arctic Lodge No. 7, came to help clean up the Masonic section on Sunday after working on the American Legion section the day before.

Cemetery Cleanup

Kari Nations places flowers at the grave of James Sutton in the Elk's Lodge plot of Birch Hill Cemetery. After helping clean up efforts on Saturday, Nations arrived Sunday morning to continue clearing the area of debris. Kyrie Long/News-Miner

“We have members who are part of the American Legion,” he said, “and then we are also the masonic group, The Prince Hall Masonic group, here as well.”

The section of graves he helped work on between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Sunday are not members of the Prince Hall Masons, according to Louihis.

“They’re just masonic members, and since we’re part of the Masonic fraternity, we just come to the gravesites and make sure we clean them,” he said.

Louihis, a company commander at Fort Wainwright, said this is his second year assisting with clean up at Birch Hill, but it’s tradition with his lodge.

“The Arctic Lodge Number 7, this is a yearly thing that we like to do prior to Memorial Day to make sure that not only is everything ready for Memorial Day, but we honor the people who have gone before us,” he said.

Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7572.