Residents upset cemetery decorations policy in unyielding

cpride@losbanosenterprise.comSeptember 19, 2013 

A revamped decorations policy for the Los Banos District Cemetery is scheduled to be voted on next month, but the loved ones of people buried there are upset because very few of their ideas are being considered.

For five months the cemetery district has been embroiled in a controversy, pitting family members’ desire to leave mementos at the grave sites of loved ones against the facility’s need to keep its maintenance workers safe.

Families visiting the cemetery have noticed flowers, angels, lights and other items placed at their loved ones’ graves have been disappearing. Cemetery Manager Deborah Lewis has overseen their removal, storing them in a nearby shed in most cases and throwing items away if they had been damaged.

In August, Los Banos District Cemetery Board member Pat Gallichio and Merced County Supervisor Jerry O’Banion agreed to establish a committee with the residents concerned about the policy. The committee was tasked with reviewing the decoration rules and suggesting changes.

Cemetery policy prohibits shrines of any kind: toys, boxes, gloves, wind-blown devices, glass objects, metal, rocks, ceramics, wax or other items.

The committee met and decided on changing the policy to allow items such as additional vases to be placed at grave sites as long as they are not located in grass areas. Under the proposal, additional decorations would be allowed for up to two weeks after birthdays and holidays. Glass, rock materials and wax items would still be prohibited.

Stanley Silva, who was on the committee, said he received an unpleasant surprise on Monday when the cemetery board reviewed a proposal that didn’t include most of the changes the committee suggested.

“It was like a kick in the groan,” Silva said.

He said the board crafted a proposal that allows items at graves but still bans every type of trinket that loved ones would want placed there.

Board President Geri Alves said some of the suggestions the committee made - allowing crosses on cement foundations being one - were kept in the proposal while others were not.

“Some changes were made, but we can’t please everyone,” Alves said.

She said the proposal is being reviewed by the board’s attorney and will likely be voted on in October.

Ashley Jones, whose daughter died as an infant and is buried at the cemetery, said that the problem is a lack of compassion by Lewis and several board members. She disputes that only damaged items were discarded.

“There were items thrown away that were not broken,” Jones said. “It’s more of a power trip with them than anything. They don’t want anything out there, it saddens me. I want to go there and feel at peace, but I feel sick to my stomach going out there.”

Jones said she believes the committee suggesting changes was just a ploy.

“The old policy was rewritten to appease us, but it’s the same thing,” she said.

Jeanette Brown, whose teenage daughter died from bone cancer in 2012, said many of her daughter’s friends leave banned items at her grave and she does not have the heart to tell them that they cannot continue. Brown wants a bench placed near her daughter’s grave but is afraid the board will deny the request if she complains too much about the decorations policy. She said there are some board members, Gallichio and Toni Russell among them, who are receptive to the public’s concerns.

Jones believes the proposed policy changes are more restrictive than what’s in place.

“If this policy gets implemented, everybody is going to have to take everything off the graves,” Jones said. “I’d like to go to the cemetery and get some comfort. The cemetery is not a comforting place.”

Enterprise reporter Corey Pride can be reached at (209) 388-6563 or by email at cpride@losbanosenterprise.com.

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