Before this year, Los Banos Cemetery District Board meetings were rarely well attended.
Typically the five board members and the cemetery manager would gather at the district’s office every third Monday and tend to the facility’s needs without an audience. That changed in 2013 as the desire of residents to grieve their loved ones was pitted against the facility’s need to keep its maintenance workers safe.
By May, some families visiting the cemetery had noticed flowers, angels, lights and other items placed at their loved ones’ graves were not there anymore. Cemetery Manager Deborah Lewis oversaw their removal, storing them in a nearby shed or throwing items in the trash.
Lewis’ actions have upset some to the point of wanting to relocate their deceased family members. Many are appalled by what they see as Lewis’ lack of compassion and have called for her termination. In the seven months since the issue arose, cemetery board meetings have been standing room only as people expressed their frustration.
“I have 24 years in this town. You may not like the way people decorate their plots. My father has been here six years. When I bring something here to honor my father, I don’t appreciate when it’s disturbed,” Angelica Foreman said at a meeting in October.
Cemetery policy prohibits shrines of any kind, toys, boxes, gloves, wind-blown devices, glass objects, metal, rocks, ceramics, wax and other items. Former cemetery board President Duane Brehm said the policy is to prevent other visitors to the cemetery or maintenance workers from injuring themselves on the items. Brehm resigned from the board suddenly, citing a death in the family and needing to spend more time with loved ones.
Brehm’s replacement, Pat Gallichio, established a committee, which included Merced County Supervisor Jerry O’Banion and family members of people buried at the cemetery. The committee was tasked with revamping the decorations policy. The committee proposed the policy allow items such as additional vases to be placed at grave sites as long as they are not located in grass areas. Also under the proposal, additional decorations would be allowed for up to two weeks after birthdays and holidays. However, when the decorations policy arrived in front of the board, all of the committee’s suggestions were left out.
“It was like a kick in the groin,” said Stanley Silva, who sat on the committee.
The board instead decided to forward the revamped policy, which allowed for stringed lights and crosses on cement foundations, to its attorney. The proposal is yet to come back before the board, but Lewis has been directed to stop removing items from graves until a new policy is in place. The board, which hired Lewis this year, also extended her probation period to February.
Noah Jones, who has an infant buried at the facility, let his feelings on the matter be known at the November cemetery meeting.
“I’m thinking it’s a personal issue. I don’t know why our families have been targeted. I know if I’d treat people at my job like this I’d be fired,” Jones said.
“I can’t control who takes things to my daughter’s grave, she had a lot of friends. I don’t want to tell her friends, ‘You can’t take those things,’ ” said Jeannette Brown, whose 19-year-old daughter Jaime died of bone cancer last year. “The cemetery is supposed to be a place of (remembrance).”
Some residents are angry with Lewis because she’s enforcing rules that her predecessor Darryl Henley did not.
Lewis, who became manager of the cemetery within the past year, would not speak to the Enterprise. Instead, she referred questions to then-Los Banos Cemetery District Board President Brehm. He said the removal is a matter of public safety.
“She’s just doing her due diligence,” Brehm said of Lewis’ actions. “It’s a health and safety issue. There’s policy on the books.”
Some people have placed flowers at their loved ones’ final resting place in containers made from material banned by the cemetery. Other families string lights along the graves of family members. Some grieving relatives reject the idea that any of the items are dangerous.
“We understand there are safety hazard guidelines we all must follow, but I am more likely to break a leg in one of the gopher holes on the property than a cross, a letter or a stuffed animal, or any memorabilia that we lay on the grave of our loved ones,” Marcie Rodrigues said.