Tucson women see urgent need to clean up cemetery

By Carmen Duarte

Arizona Daily Star

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 18 2012 12:05 a.m. MST

In this photo taken Jan. 7, 2012, Vickie Berg cleans up Pauper's Field in Evergreen Cemetery in Tucson, Ariz. Berg moved from Minnesota last July, where she worked as a court appointed guardian for the indigent mentally-ill and came out to Pauper's Field in November for the service for migrants who had died in the desert. She was appalled by the condition of the area and volunteered to clean it up.

Arizona Daily Star, David Sanders) MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press

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TUCSON, Ariz. — It's known to some as Pauper's Field, and it's estimated the remains of about 4,000 people are buried there. But for two Tucson-area women, it's a place they don't want forgotten.

Pima County's cemetery for the indigent sits on 5 acres in a desert area near a wash at the west end of Evergreen Cemetery, near Miracle Mile and North Oracle Road.

The cemetery is home to many "Unknowns" — infants on up to adults. It is home to illegal immigrants who have died in the desert, homeless who have died on the streets and people whose relatives have no means for their burial.

The county is responsible for laying them to rest, said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. In 1955, the county first purchased land from Evergreen Cemetery to do so, acquiring property over the years.

Friends Vickie Berg and Marilyn Reed first learned about Pauper's Field in November when they attended a service for illegal immigrants.

The women worked with the mentally ill in Minneapolis before moving here and are familiar with indigent burials. Berg was a court-appointed guardian for indigent mentally ill, and Reed was a director of nursing for a boarding and care facility for the mentally ill.

After seeing trash strewn in the pauper's cemetery, Berg, 59, and Reed, 66, decided to clean it up.

The women and Reed's husband, Steven, 66, a retired tool-and-die maker, returned with garden tools and filled more than 15 garbage bags with trash.

As they walked among the dead, the women bonded with the graves. Berg talks to the "Baby Boy Unknown," the "Male Unknown" and the "Female Unknown."

While cleaning, Reed became familiar with the 28 rows of graves, headstones and markers at the pauper's cemetery. She plans to write a proposal for funding from her church, Resurrection Lutheran Church in Oro Valley, to help with projects she and Berg would like to accomplish at the cemetery.

They include planting and maintaining desert landscape at the cemetery, which is all dirt.

The women also plan to approach Huckelberry to discuss the possibility of installing a cross at the cemetery.

Artist Ray Rizzo was moved by Reed and Berg's volunteerism at the cemetery. After Reed asked about the cost of making a steel cross for the cemetery, Rizzo said he would charge only for the costs of materials.

"They have such warm hearts," Rizzo said. He is proposing a cross about 10 to 12 feet tall that would weigh between 80 and 160 pounds. Lettering on the cross would read: "Known Only to God."

"I want the 'Unknown' to know that I care," Berg said. "I feel connected to the souls who are buried out there because of my past work in Minneapolis. I have been to funerals where I was the only one there. It is incredibly sad.

"I have the time to clean the cemetery, and I want to do it. These souls do have someone who cares, and I want them and their families to be at peace," Berg said.

The county recently brought in fill dirt and had parts of the cemetery leveled and restructured to prevent graves from sinking into the ground, said county Public Fiduciary Philip H. Grant.

He said his office budgets $250,000 a year for indigent burials but has lacked maintenance money for the cemetery's upkeep for several years. Some work is done by county jail inmates.

The volunteer work Berg and Reed are doing is appreciated, Huckelberry said. In next year's budget, there will be an allocation of $25,000 for maintenance at the cemetery, but it must be approved by the county Board of Supervisors, Huckelberry said.

The landscape upgrades, including the installation of a cross, that Berg and Reed propose also must be approved by the board.

There may be an issue over the cross — a religious symbol — because of separation of church and state issues, said Huckelberry, but it all would be discussed by the board before any decision.

"I want the 'Unknown' to know that I care. I feel connected to the souls who are buried out there. . I have been to funerals where I was the only one there. It is incredibly sad."

Vickie Berg, one of two Tucson women who care for Pauper's Field cemetery

Information from: Arizona Daily Star, http://www.azstarnet.com

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