Project restores landscape at Wilmington National Cemetery

Photos Courtesy of Cape Fear Landscaping.
The éRaise and Realignment_ project is évery laborintensive,_says Don Hickey of Cape Fear Landscaping.The company also maintains the cemetery year-round.
Cape Fear Landscaping is completing a éRaise andRealignment_ project at Wilmington NationalCemetery, removing all headstones and regradingand replacing turf before resetting the headstonesin exactly the same place. Each headstone weighsmore than 220 pounds, so a skid steer andstrapping system are used to carefully lift eachout of the ground and place it on a pallet.

Don Hickey never thought he’d be in the cemetery business. Until about five years ago, the managing partner of Cape Fear Landscaping in Wilmington, N.C., focused his company’s efforts on more commonplace residential and commercial landscape projects, but a fortuitous project replacing a small area of sod at Wilmington National Cemetery led Cape Fear in a whole new direction: cemetery maintenance and renovation.

“We were replacing some sod at Wilmington about five years ago and they liked the work we did,” Hickey recalls. “They asked me what other kind of work we did and I told them, ‘We can do whatever needs to be done.’” Little did he know at the time how much work that would lead to.

After several years of completing small, individual projects at Wilmington National Cemetery, Cape Fear Landscaping was awarded the contract to maintain the cemetery’s landscaping. “Then, last year, we had an opportunity to get the contract for what’s called ‘Raise and Realignment.’ That involves removing all the headstones and existing turf, bringing in topsoil and regarding the area, and then resetting the headstones,” explains Hickey. “It’s a big project, it’s huge. There are soldiers from the Civil War here and this is the first time this has been done.”

Cape Fear Landscaping had already gained some experience with small-scale “Raise and Realignment” projects at other cemeteries over the past few years. “That’s what allowed us to be able to take on a project like Wilmington National Cemetery,” says Hickey. “We’re so proud about it. It’s such a big undertaking.” The site covers about 5 acres of land and involves nearly 4,000 headstones.

Hickey says the first time the company was involved removing and replacing headstones, there was a bit of nervousness. “There are very strict guidelines that you have to go by, but once we had a handle on them, it’s pretty straightforward,” he recalls. “Over the course of a couple years, we’ve learned a lot and gotten very good at it.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs has reviewed national cemeteries around the country and prioritized those that need the most attention. These restoration efforts are part of a nationwide Millennium Project and, in cases like Wilmington National Cemetery, include “Raise and Realignment” work.

Cemeteries aren’t like soccer fields, with wide open spaces that can be stripped and leveled at any time. The presence of headstones and the sacred nature of cemeteries add extra levels of challenge and sensitivity. It takes a comprehensive project such as the “Raise and Realignment” to improve turf and landscape conditions to the point that ongoing maintenance can be successful.

After the headstones have been removed and the site stripped and regarded, “the goal is to get the headstones back in a line from north-south and east-west, and, of course, not compromise where the actual grave is,” says Hickey. “It’s a challenge to do that because, over the years, the ground and the headstones have settled and there has been erosion. Things just naturally move over time.”

Ensuring accuracy is paramount, and requires a significant amount of prep work. Cape Fear Landscaping has a crew of 12 working on the project, which is broken down into 11 sections. “We do one section at a time. We first map it all out; a licensed surveyor comes in and shoots all the lines,” says Hickey. “There are 87 control markers set out all over the cemetery, which provide measuring points for us to go off of. When we do our lines, we use a standard laser level, and then there are a lot of string lines and tape measuring. Between the crew, we have 20-something tape measures on hand at all times. A lot goes into this beyond pulling headstones and then throwing some topsoil down on the ground.”

The most important thing is to put each headstone back on the proper grave. “We have a three-part system of checks to be sure we’re doing that. It’s all got to be done very carefully, and it’s very labor-intensive,” he explains. Headstones are pulled one at a time and placed on pallets with sheets of cardboard sandwiched between each for protection. Each headstone weighs more than 220 pounds, so a skid steer and strapping system are used to carefully lift each out of the ground and place it on a pallet, with two crew members assisting.

Throughout the process, the crews are sensitive to where they’re working. “This is a national shrine, and everything has to be done with the utmost respect,” says Hickey, who adds that it’s not uncommon during the project for people to stop by the cemetery to visit the grave of a friend or relative. “So that they’re not concerned when they see just an open space without headstones, we explain to them everything we’re doing, and we have signs posted,” he explains.

Herbicide is used to kill off the sod in a given section and then a sod cutter is used to remove the sod. “In order to grade properly, we’ve got to cut the sod out of there,” Hickey explains. “We’ve hauled in a couple hundred tons of soil to get everything graded property, and in some areas we’ve had to use a skid steer to cut [the grade down] and then use that soil to build up other areas.” He adds that, because it’s a cemetery, there can only be relatively small adjustments made to the grading levels.

Once the ground has been graded and rolled, the new sod is installed. Cape Fear Landscaping is using a centipedegrass blend that’s more drought and disease-tolerant than standard centipede. The sod supplier for the project is Cape Fear Turf, based in Council, N.C. “They’ve got excellent, excellent quality grass,” says Hickey.

The dozen Cape Fear Landscaping employees on the project divide duties in the different sections of the cemetery, some pulling headstones to get an area ready, others cutting old sod out, grading or resetting headstones. “When a truck arrives with sod, everyone jumps in to help get that laid,” Hickey explains.

Then, the headstones are reset in exactly the right locations, each placed in the ground that’s been carefully tamped on top of a 2-inch gravel base. “Again, it’s very labor-intensive, and takes a couple of guys to get it right and all level,” says Hickey. The crews also carefully clean each of the headstones.

Once each section of the cemetery is completed, the Cape Fear maintenance crew (a team of three that cares for the cemetery year-round) takes over from the construction crew. There is no underground irrigation system at the cemetery, but there are several spigots located throughout the grounds, so the maintenance crew uses aboveground PVC piping and hoses to manually water the grass. “Part of our maintenance contract calls for us to keep the turf watered,” Hickey explains.

Resetting the headstones in the correct position is critical, so an intricate systemof laser levels and string lines is used. Workers must also use great care in levelingeach headstone in its position. Cape Fear Landscaping crews carefully wash each headstone after it has been replaced in its rightful position.

The maintenance crew handles everything from weed control and fertilization to mowing. The company uses Walker zero-turn mowers and vacuums all clippings. There are many live oaks on the property, which the crews thin out annually and also handled leaf pickup beneath. “There’s a lot of weed wacking between the headstones,” says Hickey.

Cape Fear Landscaping has a separate crew that maintains Salisbury National Cemetery, also in North Carolina. “I’ve been in the landscape business for a long time, and with everything that’s happened with the economy in the last year it’s been a real blessing to be able to focus my company on the work at the cemeteries,” says Hickey. “This is really the direction I’m taking our company right now. We still do a little bit of other landscaping work, but our work on cemeteries is about 80 percent of what we do right now, and my goal is for it to be 100 percent. It’s been a big plus for us, and we certainly don’t take all the work for granted, so we strive to do our best at it.”

The goal is to have the “Raise and Realignment” project complete by Memorial Day in time for the festivities at Wilmington National Cemetery. Then, the Cape Fear Landscaping crews will undertake a similar project at Raleigh National Cemetery.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.