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‘They sacrificed’ for us, Branford man says of his quest for better care of veterans’ graves

Pipe Yard Cemetery (Patrick Feller/WikiCommons)
December 06, 2020

Ed Zack gets angry when he visits his parents’ graves at St. Agnes Cemetery and sees dozens of flat, flush grave markers that have sunk below ground level and in some cases overgrown by grass and vegetation to a point where the names of the American soldiers buried there are not immediately readible.

These are people who sacrificed for their country, he notes.

People like Angelo M. Carbone, who served as a private first class in the U.S. Army during World War II and died on Nov. 21, 1991, George W. Leary, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and died on Feb. 6, 1993 and Daniel T. Wysocky, who served in the Navy in Korea and died on June 28, 2014.

Zack thinks it’s a matter of respect to maintain their graves — and believes it’s the perpetual care cemetery’s responsibility to do so.

Leaders of some of Connecticut’s biggest veterans organizations — one of whom has had issues with the care of his own veteran father’s gravestone in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Stratford on the Bridgeport line — agree.

John Pinone, executive director of the Catholic Cemeteries Association of the Archdiocese of Hartford, which runs about 30 cemeteries in New Haven, Hartford and Litchfield counties, including in the cities of New Haven and Waterbury, said that keeping up with marker maintenance, “is a challenge, to say the least…”

“To keep up with thousands and thousands of flush markers, it’s definitely a challenge,” Pinone said.

But after hearing about Zack’s complaints about St. Agnes, Pinone said, “That’s that cemetery’s issues”.

Branford’s St. Agnes and St. Rose cemeteries both are run by the St. John Bosco Parish, not by the Archdiocese of Hartford.

And the directors of two state cemetery associations, the Catholic Cemetery Association of the Archdiocese of Hartford and the Connecticut Cemetery Association, both said that while continued maintenance of the grave markers is an issue at all cemeteries, many cemeteries do keep up with it.

“They should be taken care of,” said Jeff Pelletier, president of the Connecticut Cemetery Association and Evergreen Cemetery in Watertown.

While it is a challenge to keep up with what can often be sinking and overgrown grave markers, “it’s part of the maintenance of the cemetery,” Pelletier said. “I mean, weed-wack around the stone.

“I run a cemetery in Watertown,” Pelletier said. “We honor our veterans. We take care of their stones.”

That said, “We are not the cemetery police,” Pelletier said. “We don’t make up the rules for other cemeteries.”

One of the veterans buried at St. Agnes is Zack’s father, Edward John Zack Sr., who was a corporal in the U.S. Army during World War II. He’s buried right next to Zack’s mother, Carol Sennett Zack, who died in 2015.

That grave is immaculate — clear and edged about six inches around on all sides.

He also cleared the markers of U.S. Army veteran Thomas P. Cummings, who died on July 5, 1988, and Mary V. Krista, who died in 1990 at age 97, which are located near his parents, just because “I felt sorry for them,” he said.

Zack, who lives in Branford and works as an auditor for the city of New Haven, complains a lot, he said — to the cemetery manager, to the Rev. Daniel G. Keefe, pastor of St. John Bosco Parish, which oversees St. Agnes and St. Mary cemeteries, and to parish Business Manager Ron Shea, as well as to others visiting loved ones’ graves.

Neither the cemetery manager nor Keefe returned phone messages left for them seeking comment. Shea said in a brief conversation that they would not be commenting.

“Our policy is not to comment on matters involving the press,” Shea said.

Zack said, “I’ve gone through the chain of command and they know there’s a problem there.”

Statewide challenge

For the Catholic Cemetery Association, grave marker maintenance “is an ongoing process and the objective is always to keep all the flush markers raised, so they’re above ground level, and also edge,” said Pinone.

“Some cemeteries can be more challenged than others” and “some are wetter than others,” Pinone said.

With many of the flush markers, the problem is that they were laid over plain dirt, which compacts over time, causing the marker to sink and become more susceptible to overgrowth, he said.

“We try to raise them on an ongoing basis … We’ve undertaken a program of putting crushed stone” beneath all the flush markers over time, he said.

In many cemeteries, overgrown grave markers tends to be a bigger problem in the spring or summer, when it rains a lot, than it is now, Pinone said.

Connecticut VFW Adjutant/ Quartermaster Ronald “Rusko” Rusakiewicz, who lives in Milford, has experienced the issue of cemetery maintenance first-hand. His father, the late Army World War II veteran Joseph Rusakiewicz, is buried at St. Michael’s Cemetery, which straddles the Bridgeport-Stratford line.

Ronald Rusakiewicz said he has occasionally found his father’s grave marker in need of clearing.

Dean Gestal, director of Catholic Cemeteries for the Diocese of Bridgeport, which oversees 17 cemeteries in Bridgeport, Danbury, Newtown, Stamford, Greenwich, Darien, Norwalk, Westport, Trumbull, Stratford, Bethel and Ridgefield, did not return repeated phone calls.

“I don’t know how to solve the problem,” Rusakiewicz said. But “if people who bought perpetual care for their loved ones aren’t getting it,” they need to stand up and be heard, he said.

“There’s no organization that I know that does it,” he said.

In Rusakiewicz’ 18 years as adjutant, “no one’s ever addressed it… ,” that he knows of, he said.

Connecticut American Legion Department Commander Dennis Beauregard of Southington said that in all cemeteries, “The footstones have a tendency to sink into the ground if not kept up, and they tend to be overgrown.

“You’ll hear that same story from anybody that takes care of a cemetery,” Beauregard said.

How big of a problem it is “depends on how they get kept up,” he said. “If it’s not prepared properly, they tend to sink.

“It is on our radar screen, for the American Legion,” he said. Among other things, “There are many local American Legions that go out” and help maintain veterans’ graves, “including mine in Southington.”

But “I don’t see how they can do every one of them,” Beauregard said. “These are private cemeteries. We can’t just go in.”

Most of the oldest veterans graves typically are head stones, he said. “The footstones are mostly from World War II on. It would be nice (to fix them all) but I’m not naive enough to think that that would happen.”

But “just cleaning around it would be a big help, because it would be easier to identify,” he said.

While “there’s no official, unified program, or something that we can do on a yearly basis … it is a community issue,” Beauregard said. “It is something that needs to be addressed.”

In Branford, Zack also has taken it upon himself to clear some of those currently-unrecognizable graves — about 15 so far, only a few of which are relatives or people who were neighbors or friends in life.

When he didn’t get satisfaction from the cemetery and church officials after months of complaining, he contacted the New Haven Register — and ended up clearing the grave markers for Carbone, Leary, Wysocky and several others in front of a masked reporter.

“This is growth over years,” Zack, also wearing a mask, said one recent morning , the knees of his jeans stained dark with moisture and dirt from kneeling to bring the names and details of deceased soldiers’ lives back to light.

“These veterans were common people — privates, corporals,” Zack said. “They sacrificed quite a bit — and to be treated like this” after death “is wrong.”

During another visit, he cleared a few more grave markers, including that of Boris Yakimoff, a U.S. Army sergeant who died on Oct. 23, 1983 at age 59. Others, such as the marker for World War II veteran Anthony Richetelli, who died on June 21, 2000, remained overgrown and barely visible.

It takes him about 15 minutes per grave, he said.

Zack said that he has been told there is not enough help at the cemetery to do full perpetual care.

But Zack, who also has several aunts, uncles and other deceased relatives buried among St. Agnes’ 2,962 graves, wonders aloud, “When I’m gone, who’s going to take care of it?”

Dave Goclowski of Branford, whose parents also are buried at St. Agnes, also contends there’s a problem — and also has taken care of about a half-dozen graves besides those of his immediate family.

“They should be doing more because it’s perpetual care,” Goclowski said.

What Goclowski said he sees at St. Agnes is that “there are many veterans gravestones that are not taken care of, and it’s really a shame, because most of veterans who are there, their relatives are not around.”

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