HURON — In 2017 and into 2018, Restlawn Memory Gardens was struggling, to say the least.
Unhappy survivors who had purchased and paid for markers for loved ones interred at the cemetery south of Huron were waiting months without anything being installed, or even received for placement.
They were mad enough to ask for an investigation that was undertaken by the S.D. Attorney General’s office.
“They were mad,” said Cheryl Schmit, the manager of the 17-acre property for just over three years, “as they had every right to be.”
Three years later, while Schmit still sees projects she wishes to see completed, her work, combined with the assistance of others, has seen Restlawn turn the corner and begin the climb back to what it once was, as Schmit and her staff prepare for the Memorial Day weekend.
“Everything dealing with headstones and markers is up-to-date as of six weeks ago,” she said. “We’re current and things are running as they should be.”
Contacted this week, Tim Bormann, the Public Information Officer for the AG’s office said that things have been reported to be going much more smoothly at the cemetery, although the investigation continues.
Bormann declined to comment regarding the investigation.
Schmit was born and lived in Huron until her family moved to Colorado when she was in grade school. They moved back when she was a senior in high school. “So I graduated from here,” she says with a smile, “but I really didn’t know anyone that I went to school with.”
Marriage and a career as the president of the Teamsters Union in Las Vegas followed, before she and her husband Tom retired and returned to Huron seven years ago.
“My mother-in-law passed away after a battle with Alzheimer’s,” Schmit said, “so I was looking for whatever was next. The guys down at Welters (Funeral Home) encouraged me to get involved at Restlawn, so I guess I have them to blame or thank,” she said.
Curt Johns, the Managing Director and co-owner of Welters said he didn’t specifically recall pointing Schmit toward Restlawn. “But she has done wonders with what she was given to work with,” he said. “She has really made a difference - both she and Tom. She’s been a godsend.”
Schmit said when she started, she knew nothing about the business. “I was just trying to get the lay of the land and figure things out.” It was an eye-opening experience.
She said that the problems on the grounds were visible. “Things were not being maintained.” But she didn’t know the ‘behind-the-scenes’ issues and she spent the first year getting a handle on things.
“There were tables in the office that were just covered with files,” she said with a shake of her head. “Some ladies from the Methodist church volunteers for several hours to get those files organized.”
Schmit said that others in the community have lent a hand as well. “Dale and Sandy Eden, from Eden Farms, have donated so much,” she said. “from bringing in their equipment to help us remove dead trees, to purchasing and donating road materials to repair potholes, removing snow and bringing in big rocks for our future Butterfly Garden. So many people have donated time and materials for new greenery, granite benches and much more.”
But while things are improving, Schmit still sees projects to complete
“When I came here I made a list of things that needed to be done. We’ve been working on that list, doing the larger things first and getting current.” Now, she says, she has been able to turn her attention to the other things remaining on her list.
“For instance, this year I have hired a person who is tasked with doing nothing but edging around the markers. It had not been done for years before and it hasn’t been accomplished in the last three years, but it is getting done this year.”
Schmit said that she believed that people felt they weren’t being heard. She added that she spent a great deal of time on the phone when she first began as people learned there was a new person in charge. “They just wanted to know that someone was hearing them and understands what they are saying. This is the most difficult time in their lives and they need to be heard with compassion and heart.”
She brought her business acumen and negotiating abilities gleaned through her career with the union. “There is always common ground,” she said. “I do my best to put myself in their shoes. ‘What is the best solution to fix this?’”
While Restlawn is improved, work continues. The cemetery opened in 1961 and many of the things that made it unique have gone by the wayside. Things like planters adjacent to the statue of Christ in the center of the property and the fish ponds that were located along one of the front driveways.
Schmit is working toward replacing the planters and has begun work at transforming the fish ponds, which had become overgrown with weeds, into a Butterfly Garden.
“I can order metal butterflies, that have the name and information for someone who has passed away, and we can have them attached to a small metal pole or to one of the large rocks,” she said. “The colorful butterflies on the poles will flutter in the breeze.”
The roof on the mausoleum, which was built on the west side of the property in 1991, has a new roof and is slated for a fresh coat of paint, inside and out, later this year. And the mausoleum is also where Schmit has made another inroad in the care of those passed on.
“More people are choosing cremation over traditional burial,” Schmit said. “We are offering a Columbarium of Unity in the mausoleum. It allows the cremains of several individuals, in separate urns, to share a crypt space. Each has a nameplate on the granite cover, but the space is shared, for those seeking a lower cost alternative.”
She said that additionally, the cemetery offers floral arrangements for sale, with bases that are specifically made to fit securely into the vases on the markers at Restlawn.
“Having a business background and caring for people is where it all starts,” she said. “It’s pretty simple but it’s true.” Schmit has begun working with a young woman who will hopefully be able to take over in the future. “Let’s remember,” Schmit says with a big smile, “I AM retired.”
Schmit says that without the support, kindness and generosity of the Restlawn families and the community, she would not have been able to accomplish as much as has been done, or be able to plan future projects.
“People told me this would be a thankless job,” she said wistfully. “But I have received so many ‘thank yous’ from people who just wanted to be heard.”