Vietnam veteran Ken Lepla says he is talking, but the staff at Elm Lawn Cemetery isn’t listening.
“I’ve gone to them over and over again about the deplorable conditions of the veterans' sections (of the cemetery),” Lepla said. “But they just don’t care.”
Potholes in the roads, sunken graves and overgrown headstones are a disgrace to those buried there and their families, Lepla said, adding that his repeated requests for action by Elm Lawn personnel have been met with hostility.
“They’ve thrown me out of the office more than once,” he said. “Even though I have a niece and an uncle buried there.”
But Lepla kept on speaking to others about what he considers disgraceful conditions at Elm Lawn, located at 401 E. Lake St. in Elmhurst.
He talked to a former Elm Lawn employee. He talked to 1st Ward Alderman Paula Pezza.
“I just want to see something done about this,” he said.
Lepla was born and raised in Elmhurst. His family home on Emroy Avenue overlooks Elm Lawn Cemetery. He said over the years, he and his neighbors have watched the decline in its care.
“They just don’t take care of the graves anymore,” Lepla said. “The roads are bad, the headstones are sunken, and in the garden section, water covers the graves much of the time.”
The reason for the standing water, he said, is that there is not sufficient underground drainage at Elm Lawn.
Elm Lawn owner Scott Troost said he is aware of the water problem.
“There are stormwater lines that run underground,” Troost said. “And so the potential to nick one of them is there when we dig.”
Troost said plans are being made to rectify the problem at Elm Lawn, and a similar problem already has been addressed at their neighboring property, Arlington Cemetery.
“We already tore up the road and laid drain tile in Arlington,” Troost said.
But Lepla is convinced the problem is deeper, and that Elm Lawn is guilty of negligence.
“The veterans' sections are the worst, but every section of Elm Lawn has sunken graves and overgrown headstones,” Lepla said.
That has to do with the early days of the cemetery, Troost said. Elm Lawn was established in 1905.
“The older graves have a tendency to pitch, because back then, the bodies were not placed in concrete containers," Troost said. "The [grave] markers, themselves, are the private property of the owners and therefore their responsibility. We will try to help if we can, particularly if a family member contacts us.”
But, contacting Troost is not an easy task.
Anyone seeking to speak to him must first either fax or mail a written request.
Troost has no private voicemail and offers no other means to communicate with him except through his receptionist, who emphatically reinforces the written request policy.
"Mr. Troost owns eight properties and is only here once a week,” she told Elmhurst Patch.
But what about the graves of veterans who no longer have family to care for them?
“Memorial Day is typically a big day for us,” Troost said. “But with all the rain we can’t run the lawn mowers, and even with 14 groundsmen on staff, it is a time-intensive job to work around the upright headstones and the flat ones.”
But Troost said he is trying.
He met recently with a city inspector to address complaints from neighbors adjacent to Elm Lawn.
“They wanted us to clean up the pond, so we did,” Troost said. “But of course with the weather, it filled back up again with debris.”
He said he has ordered filler for the potholes so the roads will be smoother by Memorial Day.
“Not fixed, but better,” Troost said.
But Lepla is skeptical. He said that last fall, there was a grave so shallow he could see the vault.
“I raised a big stink about it, and they did go and throw some dirt on it,” Lepla said.
Lepla contends that the Troost family doesn’t care about Elm Lawn and Arlington cemeteries because they’ve been trying to sell them for years.
“Not so,” Troost said. “It’s always been a family business. When my dad got sick with cancer, I moved back home to take care of things.”
The senior Troost, Robert, died of pancreatic cancer in 2010, and Scott Troost left his job in theater on the east coast to move back to Elmhurst and oversee the business.
“I’m still learning,” Troost said. “But my uncle’s helping me, and eventually we’ll get there.”
But according to a 2007 article by ABC 7 News investigative reporter Chuck Goudie, cemetery neglect has been a longstanding Troost family problem:
“A spokesman for the Illinois comptroller who regulates private cemeteries says their records show several complaints against Elm Lawn for poor maintenance and upkeep since the year 2000,” Goudie reported.
In the article, Robert Troost offered the same explanation his son did for the collapsing graves: “It's a very old section. Apparently, burials were made in wood boxes, and they collapse over the years. If they were concrete, (which) today all the cemeteries require, it never would have happened.”
Scott Troost said, without outer containers the markers are also more susceptible to sinking.
"In an effort to stabilize and maintain the veterans' section, the cemetery has taken the initiative to regrade it multiple times,” he said.
The cemetery's responsibilities also include edging around markers and raising them, which according to Scott Troost is a significant task. There are tens of thousands of markers in the cemetery. Troost said his sister walked the grounds recently and noted monuments that needed to be straightened or leveled. The list has been delivered to a foreman for immediate attention.
“It is extremely important to us to honor those that have served our country and are buried here," Troost said. "We will continue to work to ensure that their final resting place and markers are properly cared for and maintained.”