WARRENTON — When Anne and Clive Clarke visited their daughter’s grave at Ocean View Cemetery on a Sunday in late February, they were shattered by what was missing.
Some of the evergreen trees they planted in Tara Valentine Clarke’s memory had been cut down. “We were devastated,” said Anne Clarke, who lives with her husband in Mount Vernon, Washington, and has family roots in Astoria. “It was like a desecration.”
A decade ago, the Clarkes say, they were given permission by a former cemetery superintendent to plant trees near the plots they have purchased for their family. The Astoria Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the cemetery for the city, found that some of the trees needed to be removed because they encroached on other plots and were making maintenance difficult.
Unable to find any written documentation authorizing the planting, and uncertain about which family planted the trees, the city’s parks staff uprooted the evergreens.
Ocean View’s rules empower the city to remove trees, shrubs, plants and flowers when they do not conform to cemetery standards, but the Parks and Recreation Department understands the Clarkes’ disgusted reaction.
“We had no idea who had planted these very young trees at the cemetery,” said Angela Cosby, the director of the Parks and Recreation Department. “We had nobody to contact or what to do with when we remove them or to give anybody a heads-up.
“So then when the Clarkes came out a few months after we removed them to visit their daughter’s site and see the circle of trees that they had planted, to find most of them removed, they were pretty sad.
Last year, the Astoria City Council made improvements at Ocean View a goal after complaints from plot owners and the public that staff and budget cuts during the recession had left the cemetery in poor condition.
Councilors agreed to significantly increase burial and cremation fees — the first fee increases in 19 years — to help offset the city’s annual subsidy.
The City Council also approved more than $70,000 for weed eradication and reseeding at Ocean View.
In December, however, councilors declined to release the money, fearing it would be wasted unless the city made a commitment to upkeep.
City Councilor Russ War, who has been the most vocal about keeping the city’s promise to provide perpetual care for the families that have bought plots at Ocean View, urged councilors not to release the money.
Assigning a cemetery superintendent to Ocean View would help ensure perpetual care and reduce misunderstandings like cutting down the Clarkes’ trees. But dedicating staff to the cemetery, which lost its last full-time worker in 2013, could come at the expense of police, public works or other city priorities.
“It’s a tough question. And I don’t have a ready answer and I’m involved on both sides,” said Warr, the owner of Astoria Granite Works, which makes headstones and grave markers. “So what do you do?”
Cosby told the City Council in an email that parks staff will be posting rules and regulation signs on cemetery grounds, “but without enforcement or oversight,” she wrote, “there is no guarantee that compliance will be obtained.
“Our maintenance division’s responsibilities are so far-reaching that it is unfeasible to have anyone at the cemetery unless there are burial or mowing activities taking place.”
Established in 1897, the 100-acre cemetery has more than 16,000 plots. With a decline in burials as more people choose cremation, and Astoria’s difficulty in maintaining the cemetery, the city has made the cemetery’s future part of the discussion of a new parks master plan.
Anne Clarke remembers when Ocean View was beautiful, a source of pride for Astoria and the families who chose to make the lakeside expanse in Warrenton the final resting place for their loved ones.
Clarke’s father, Edgar Frank “Bud” Olson, was from Astoria, and is buried at Ocean View along with her mother and other generations in the Olson line.
The Clarkes have plots for themselves, their late daughter, and their son, Cory. After first planting black locust trees near their daughter’s grave, they switched to evergreens a few years back.
Anne Clarke said she is willing to work with other Ocean View families on options to help the city maintain the cemetery. The Parks and Recreation Department has apologized to the Clarkes and offered to discuss planting trees in another part of the cemetery to honor Tara Valentine Clarke, who died of brain cancer in 2006.
“My heart is broken,” Anne Clarke wrote in a letter she shared with The Daily Astorian Friday afternoon. “Ten years have passed this August. We thought that we had invested in what we believed to be a stately, well cared for, historically important place in our Oregon history.”