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Girl Scouts log burial records from old cemetery

MUNSTER, Ind. — The first trip the Girl Scouts of Troop 10051 made to Hammond's Oak Hill Cemetery revealed a troubled, unkempt burial ground with more graves than the girls thought they could count.

But now the eight girls of the Munster Mints Neighborhood are doing just that at the 21-acre Hohman Avenue cemetery. They are counting and cataloging the burial records in a computer program to make grave site information more accessible to the public.

It's a welcome story for many whose loved ones are buried in the embattled cemetery, which contains an estimated 10,000-plus graves, including those of Hammond founders and Civil War veterans.

In the past several months, revelations of mismanagement, discarded headstones, unmarked graves and disinterred human bones have plagued the cemetery.

Now Girl Scout leader Kerry Connor, a federal public defender by day, and her troop of eight teenage girls are logging more than 10 hours of volunteer time per month to help make the situation better.

Fifty hours into the project, the girls have entered the records — including names, last known addresses and burial dates — of 1,000 of Oak Hill's deceased into a searchable Microsoft Access database. When finished, the North Township trustee's office plans to put the database online for anyone to search.

The girls gathered recently for a work session at Connor's Munster home, some dictating the old, stained cardboard record cards and others typing the information into their laptops.

The computers were issued to the girls for school assignments at Wilbur Wright Middle School, and the school has given them permission to use the laptops for the public service project, Connor said.

"It's just so many of them," said Claire LeMonnier, 14, as she busily typed burial information into her laptop. "These cards take up a lot of space."

Over the years, the cemetery kept burial records on the card catalog-style index cards and stored them in dozens of boxes.

But some of the records have gone missing or have been destroyed, and the Girl Scouts are working with the North Township trustee's office to make the records more permanent.

The trustee's office took over maintenance duties at the privately owned cemetery late last year after a Times investigation that revealed unkempt and unmarked graves and headstones discarded in a debris pile at the cemetery.

Trustee Frank Mrvan is in legal wranglings to assume ownership of Oak Hill under Indiana laws permitting township takeover of abandoned cemeteries.

"The Girl Scouts are doing a lot of the heavy lifting for us by entering these records," said Mrvan, who hopes to secure full ownership of Oak Hill within 30 days. "They are really stepping up."

Since the trustee's maintenance takeover, grass and brush that had been overgrowing grave sites have been cut back and many discarded headstones have been returned to their grave sites. Volunteer cleaning crews also have aided in sweeping the cemetery of limbs, trash and other debris.

Improvements at Oak Hill have been a welcome site for Girl Scout Anna Riggs, 14. During the records project, she has noted many cards stamped with the words "Perpetual Care," meaning the deceased or their loved ones paid into a fund that was supposed to maintain the grave sites.

"When we visited some of these graves at the cemetery, we found that wasn't the case — that the care wasn't happening," Riggs said.

The girls expect to be entering data for the next several months and plan to conduct a tour to display the historical and unique grave sites and monuments of Oak Hill.

Information from: The Times, http://www.thetimesonline.com