Cook: Blessed Cofer, cursed cooties

Cook: Blessed Cofer, cursed cooties

July 4th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Damaged grave markers are seen at Cofer Cemetery, where Hamilton County's indigent burials take place. The cemetery is located just off Jenkins Road near I-75 North.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

Repairs have been made to grave markers in the newest section of the Cofer Cemetery in East Brainerd, used for decades by Hamilton County for indigent burials. Dirt has been added over many of the graves, and new grass has been planted.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Nine weeks ago, Brother Ron Fender and I drove out to Ruth Cofer Cemetery, the 42-acre plot off Jenkins Road where our county buries its poor and homeless.

What we saw there shocked us.

Gravestones were overturned or missing altogether. The stones - concrete blocks usually buried several inches in the ground, with metal nameplates attached to the top - were casually and crookedly tossed aside, the way you would a yard toy. One was turned face-down.

Nameplates were damaged and ripped in two, like they'd been chewed up by some grim mower blade.

(A column and photos published on May 11 describe this in detail.)

"The way we treat that cemetery says a lot about us as a people," Fender said.

Later that day, I called the Hamilton County Maintenance Department, then Parks and Recreation, looking for answers. I finally spoke with Mike Compton, the chief of staff for Mayor Jim Coppinger.

"I take full responsibility," he said. "We're screwing it up and we're going to fix it."

That was in May. Two weeks ago, Fender and I returned to Cofer.

Again, we were shocked.

"Oh my," Fender said.

He looked around. Walked among the graves. Couldn't believe what he saw.

"It's absolutely beautiful," he said.

The once-damaged cemetery has been gracefully restored.

All the damaged headstones have been replaced, each dug properly and evenly into the ground. Scarred nameplates have been replaced with shiny ones. Fresh grass is growing where there was once red dirt and mud.

"It's amazing," Fender said.

Know what else is amazing? The county government's response during this. As soon as he learned of the damage, Compton took 100 percent responsibility. He was no-nonsense honest and refreshingly responsive; county workers immediately began treating Cofer like the Queen Mum was coming to visit.

"If we're not doing it right, tell me," he'd call and say.

It gets better. Short on land at Cofer, the county had begun cremating instead of burying, yet had not created a central location for storing the urns.

Until now.

"We're going to build a columbarium," Compton said.

Located at Cofer, the columbarium - like a sacred vault - will be able to store between 100 and 150 urns, each able to be claimed by family members at any point in the future.

It should be completed this fall, Compton said.

"Our guys are kind of excited about it," he said.

They should be.

They've just resurrected a cemetery.

•••

Throughout Wednesday night's debate for the 3rd Congressional District Republican primary, challenger Weston Wamp criticized the politics of incumbent Rep. Chuck Fleischmann as divisively partisan and isolationist, as if Democrats are a contagious disease.

"Where we don't agree is that Democrats have cooties and you can't talk to them and there can't be civil discourse in this country," Wamp said. "Because that's part of the problem."

Well, I don't have cooties.

(And I didn't have them back in third grade either, Mary Kate Smithers!)

As silly as it sounds, cootie politics is a great way to describe the juvenile dysfunction of partisan politics. It's like we've become political inbreds, associating only with our own, mating our ideas only with those who agree with us.

All night, Wamp emphasized his open-minded position: The rebuilding of America happens through discourse and common-ground politics.

"It is so recklessly irresponsible ... if we bicker and point fingers," Wamp said.

You'd think he was reading Marx and spitting on Reagan's grave. Fleischmann seemed incredulous at such notions. Right after Wamp's cootie comment, the congressman responded.

"They've got a lot worse than that," he said.

Like what? Herpes? A bad toenail fungus?

How preposterous. How vain. It is one thing to stand firm in one's convictions, yet another entirely to refuse to entertain the possibility that maybe, just maybe, somebody else besides yourself may have a solution, too.

For some, we call this narcissism.

For Fleischmann, it's elect-me campaign talk.

Cootie politics is about to push us over the edge. The worst problem we face is not (insert your own Worst Problem here) but the way we can no longer stand to talk to one another.

The recent death of Howard Baker was not only physical, but symbolic as well: the death of reconciliatory politics.

During the debate, it became very clear which candidate wanted to revive them.

•••

Happy Fourth, everybody.

Enjoy the freedom.

And drive safely.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.