Loewen's Cemetery Shake-down
Targeting the Poor and Parents Who Have Lost a Child
The grandfather got the first call from Hillcrest Gardens in Mt. Holly, NC. Walter owns six lots there. His wife is buried there, and his tiny grandson, too, right on top of his wife. There's a marker for his wife, a flat stone with bronze that sticks up an inch or so above the sod, a marker big enough for his name when his time comes. The cemetery mows around it just fine, he says, or it has so far.
The marker for baby Jerome nestles in the grass nearby, a bronze-colored metal plate, 5" x 10" or so, embossed with his name and driven into the ground with the attached spikes underneath. It's been there eight years. It was about all they could afford at the time. Buried in the grass, the lawn mower probably never knew it was there.
The new plan at Hillcrest was a jolt from the blue. They were going to start pulling up all the temporary markers, said the lady who called, but folks could purchase new markers if they wanted. Why were they going to pull up the markers? Because the temporary ones might damage the mowing machines, the grandfather was told. That seemed absurd after eight years, but he gave out his daughter's name and phone number. He had no idea what she and her husband would think, but something was certainly wrong. "If you do that, how will you know who is buried where?" he asked. "Oh, people can purchase a new one," the caller offered eagerly.
Britt got the next call. "We know you have a child buried there," the Hillcrest lady said, explaining that they were going to start taking up the temporary markers at Hillcrest—"tomorrow if it doesn't rain." Britt was stunned. "When can we come out and talk to you about a new marker?" the lady asked. Britt felt guilty that they had been able to afford only the smallest marker at the time, but no one had told her it was "temporary," and it certainly had looked fine all these years. When Britt's husband heard about the call, he exploded! This was the same cemetery where Henry had been told that he couldn't put a vase on Jerome's gravesite because he hadn't bought the vase from the cemetery. Now he knew there was something wrong, damn it! That they could afford a much larger marker now was not the point. That some telemarketer named "Angel" thought she could intimidate and scare the family into purchasing a new memorial defied every sense of common decency. It didn't take long for the rest of the family to share Henry's anger.
Thanks to an article in U.S. News and World Report that had appeared just the week before, the grandfather had FAMSA's phone number and called the next day. He feared that his grandson's marker was going to be pulled any time or maybe already had been. Armed with advice from FAMSA, he visited the cemetery that afternoon—to take pictures and to get a copy of the cemetery's bylaws. Minimum marker: 24" x 12" bronze. "Maybe I'll shop around," he said when he heard the prices of what they were selling. "You don't want to do that," he was told. "We'll take good care of any marker we sell. If it broke or got chipped by the mower, we'd replace it. If you buy something somewhere else, we can't help you." And how much time did they really have? Seems the pull-up-the-markers project probably wouldn't happen just yet—"after Easter," he was told. Not quite the rush laid on his daughter who thought her son's gravesite would be empty by that afternoon.
Then Lisa Carlson in the FAMSA office called Hillcrest Gardens later in the day to inquire about the marker removals: "Oh, are you one of the people who got a telephone call? Let me transfer you to the person who made the calls." Why would the cemetery suddenly start pulling up markers? Carlson wanted to know. "Because they are just temporary. They create a problem for the mowers. We're just enforcing the rules that were never enforced by the other owner," she was told. "A problem after eight years?" Carlson asked with a sneer. And how many "temporary" markers are they going to pull up? "About 30." (Britt says there are probably 200 or 300 small markers at the cemetery.) "But what if folks can't afford a new marker?" Carlson asked. "I don't know of anyone who can't afford $20 a month," the cemetery lady replied with no sense of shame.
FAMSA and baby Jerome's family will be pursuing legal options to keep the cemetery from removing any markers that are substantially in compliance with the cemetery regulations for easy maintenance or from leaving any occupied grave unmarked. Now it is a cause for protecting all families at the cemetery, not just baby Jerome. Stay tuned.