Grave Concern: The Million-Dollar Destruction Of Green Lawn Cemetery

Feb 6, 2017

Randy Rogers drives up to the Field family mausoleum, within Columbus' Green Lawn Cemetery. Its columns are covered by police tape, and the glass in one door is splintered.

But the worst of the damage is on the other side.

"They had broken out the front glass, and we replaced it with safety glass, and he came back and tried to break the safety glass out and couldn’t," Rogers says. "So he went around the monument and broke out the stained glass."

Repairing the mausoleum's stained glass window will cost about $3,500 dollars. But elsewhere in Green Lawn, the damage is much more severe.

For almost 170 years, families have laid their loved ones to rest amid the beauty and peace of Green Lawn Cemetery's’s tree-shaded, park-like landscape. More than 150,000 people are buried in the cemetery, including ace World War I pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, cartoonist James Thurber and minstrel showman Al G. Field. 

Then, in the fall of 2015, someone shattered the tranquility of Green Lawn. At first, the vandal or vandals started by knocking over gravestones. Since then, they've returned more than a dozen times. Now, officials say, some 600 monuments have been damaged at a cost of more than $1 million.

Repairing the 130-year-old obelisks in Green Lawn Cemetery is a "real daunting task," says a board of trustees member.
Credit Sam Hendren

In one of the cemetery’s older sections, Roger examines an obelisk lying broken on the ground.

"It’s from the 1880s, and to get that obelisk repaired is going to be about $7,500, and it’s a real daunting task," says Roger, who sits on the cemetery's board of trustees.

Many of the obelisks can be repaired. But other works cannot.

A tall, colonnaded monument is dedicated to 19th century Ohio Supreme Court Justice Gustavus Swan. It used to have a bust of Swan at the center, carved by a noted early American sculptor.

But vandals smashed the bust to pieces. 

The bust of a 19th century Ohio Supreme Court justice was done by a prominent artist at the time.

"We could get another artist to re-carve that stone based on Swan’s portrait, but it’s going to be well into the five figures to have that done," Roger says. "And so this, to some degree because it is damaging the work of a notable artist, [is] irreplaceable damage."

Officials have stepped up patrols along the cemetery’s 27 miles of roads and paths, and the Franklin County Sheriff’s office is investigating. Cameras have been installed, Rogers says, but with 4,300 trees over 360 acres, they’re only effective to a point.

"If I had 360 cameras—one per acre— that would not adequately cover the cemetery, just because the lines of sight are very difficult," he says. 

An unknown man started a fire on purpose at Green Lawn on Jan. 9, 2017, as caught by security cameras.
Credit Crime Stoppers

One camera did catch a vandal in the act.  He was seen pulling up American flags from veterans’ graves, lighting them and trying to start a brush fire. That person has yet to be apprehended.  So cemetery officials turned to Crime Stoppers for help.

Crime Stoppers board president Kristen McKinley says that the extent of the damage spurred her organization to assist.

"This is an egregious desecration of gravesites that is just appalling," McKinley says. "This particular crime, this vandalism, rises to the level of a felony because of the dollar amount that they are seeing down there."

Central Ohio Crime Stoppers is offering a $1,000 reward for tips leading to an arrest.

The cemetery is just doing what it can to preserve irreplaceable history.

"It’s a huge challenge and that’s where we try to evaluate and with the more artistic and more historically prominent and the ones that are more important to Columbus, we try to raise some non-profit dollars," Rogers says. "But it’s so expensive."

In the meantime, Rogers started a GoFundMe account. So far, it's raised $5,000—a pittance of their $100,000 goal. 

Raising enough money to pay for the extensive damages is one of the cemetery's primary concerns.
Credit Sam Hendren