AZTEC — Lynette Justice is looking for volunteers to adopt a cemetery plot.
Last month, Justice, a retired judge for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, and others formed an ad hoc group to help clean up and care for grave sites at the Aztec Cemetery.
"I came out to honor my friend's grave, and I just started looking around and was thinking, 'This cemetery's a mess,' and so a group of us started making calls," Justice said during a visit to the cemetery on Chamisa Street on Monday. "You can either gripe about it or do something."
Working with the Aztec Cemetery Association that manages the cemetery, Justice began the adopt-a-plot program, which asks volunteers to care for a plot for a minimum of two years.
So far, she has gotten 40 plots at the cemetery adopted and is planning a clean-up day to clear weeds and care for the cemetery's mostly dirt-and-sand grounds. Many graves there are unmarked, damaged or in need of "some TLC." She also plans to gather those volunteers together to share stories about the people buried there and have a dinner at the hilltop cemetery to celebrate sometime later this summer.
To protect the deceased from being forgotten, Justice has a list of the names of more than 2,600 who are buried there, which she keeps on her laptop.
Justice adopted five plots herself, graves that bear the name Case, a notable Aztec family whose historic Queen Anne home on North Mesa Verde Avenue she currently occupies.
"This is what we're talking about," Justice said upon finding Billy Noland at the cemetery Monday morning framing and regrading 10 plots that mark where his grandparents, parents and uncles and aunts are buried. "This is part of the community. There's history here. I read in a book once that to die is our final end, but to die twice is when you're forgotten. We need to honor the lives here."
Noland, who grew up on McCoy Avenue and was principal at Kirtland High School, has been coming to the cemetery off and on for years, sometimes with his tractor, to cut weeds and help keep the grounds in shape.
"I was born in '52, and when I was about 5 or 6 years old, they would hold a cemetery clean-up day and all the people would show up and we'd clean this cemetery up," Noland said. "I may not live long enough, but I'd like to have pot luck dinners up here and have people come up in the morning and work and then have dinner together and share the stories of the people here."
During the last week, Noland has been busy at his family's grave plots grading the soil and framing new concrete boundaries for them under the partial shade of a cedar tree.
"Just look around this place. There's a lot of history, a lot of people who had an influence on my life," Noland said. "You don't know what these people went through in their lifetime, what they were up against, what they went through. I was brought up, if you see somebody who needs a little help, you help 'em out. Even if they're gone, help a little bit. You don't have to jump up or down or spend a lot of money — just bring a rake."
Noland said he was especially fond of the notable Aztec family, the Chavezes, who are buried on the east side of the cemetery.
"Claudio Chavez (brother of former Aztec Mayor Flavio Chavez) had a good idea. He put some concrete curbing. Put up some benches and a picnic table with a sign that says 'Welcome to use,'" Noland said. "Claudio used to come up here and hang out and think about the people up here. He was always pestering me, 'Come up here and join us,' you know."
Justice also hopes the cemetery program spurs more interest in local history. She would like to see a book published on the cemetery occupants' life stories.
"I want the people who adopt the graves to learn about the people buried there," Justice said. "We can start a book and say, this person, this is what we found out about them. This is who they were. This baby died of typhoid. This family homesteaded here. There are so many stories. Let's honor these people."
James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.