LEHIGH, Iowa -- Years of heavy rain and erosion have taken a toll on the Oak Grove Cemetery near Lehigh, leaving coffins and bones exposed while local and state officials discuss who is responsible for reburying the remains.
Storms in 2009 caused most of the damage by washing away the wall of a ravine and causing a strip of the oldest part of the cemetery to slide away, The Des Moines Register reported Wednesday.
Several headstones slid down a slope and at least one body became exposed. A concrete burial vault still protrudes from the bank near the top of the ravine, a few yards from what appears to be a human leg bone. Pieces of other bones are under fallen leaves.
``It's just a heck of a mess,'' said Phil Berglund, a Yell Township trustee who oversees the cemetery's maintenance.
Berglund said his little township can't afford to stabilize the ravine, and other officials aren't willing to help.
``This is a problem that is beyond us,'' he said.
A staffer with the state archaeologist's office visited the site and took pictures of bones two years ago, but records indicate she couldn't determine if they were old enough to be her office's responsibility. Before the agency can issue permits to move graves, they must be at least 150 years old.
Oak Grove is one of thousands of small cemeteries scattered throughout Iowa's countryside. Officials said many old cemeteries lack consistent upkeep, but they said it's unusual to have such severe problem.
Karen Long-Fladeboe was appalled by the situation when she and her sister visited their ancestors' graves at the cemetery a couple of weeks ago. The women took pictures of the fallen gravestones and of what appeared to be a leg bone sticking up out of the mud. Long-Fladeboe, who lives in St. Cloud, Minn., called local, county and state officials, who all told her they sympathized but couldn't do anything.
``Everybody says, `It's not my responsibility,''' she said. ``It's disrespectful.''
Webster County Emergency Management Coordinator Tony Jorgensen said he was aware of the problem but didn't have the money to make repairs.
``I feel terrible for the families. It's a terrible situation,'' he said.
Berglund, 77, said he's heard from several upset cemetery visitors, but none were from the township, where the population has dwindled to about 15 farming families. The township has about $10,000 in annual tax revenues, which cover fire protection and mowing of the cemeteries.
The Oak Grove Cemetery covers a few acres bordered by a cornfield. The damage is toward the back, where the oldest graves are.
Berglund said the township previously tried to limit the problem by pushing some dirt into the ravine, but that failed to stop the erosion.
Polly Carver-Kimm, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Public Health, said her agency wasn't aware of the problem until Long-Fladeboe called to complain last week. Carver-Kimm said her department probably wouldn't have a role in resolving the issue because the bones were found in a cemetery.
``It's a cemetery issue,'' she said.