The Los Banos District Cemetery’s leadership was criticized once again last week as its manager and board of directors continued to draw the ire of people who are not being allowed to decorate the grave sites of their loved ones as they see fit.
For six months, the cemetery district has been embroiled in a controversy that pits the desires of families to leave mementos at the grave sites of loved ones against the district’s need to keep its maintenance workers safe.
In the spring, families visiting the cemetery began to notice flowers, angels, lights and other items placed at graves starting to disappear. Cemetery manager Deborah Lewis had overseen their removal, storing most in a nearby shed but throwing items away if they had been damaged. The cemetery’s board of directors ordered Lewis to no longer discard items without giving family members the opportunity to retrieve them. The board is also revamping its decorations policy.
Cemetery policy prohibits shrines of any kind: toys, boxes, gloves, wind-blown devices, glass objects, metal, rocks, ceramics, wax and other items.
Residents vented their frustration Oct. 21 at what they believe is Lewis’ uncompassionate and sometimes rude behavior.
“Our issue at Los Banos Cemetery District is a personnel issue,” said Marci Rodriguez. “Every cemetery district has the same rules and regulations. Our loved ones are in heaven, but they are also right out there (at the cemetery). It may not be your thing to decorate, but it is some of ours. All we’re asking is respect, because one day every board member will end up somewhere and I hope to God the personnel is different.”
Lewis and the board members had a supporter. Georgette Silva-Mello, a Madera resident, said she has family at the cemetery and supports Lewis making people adhere to the rules.
“All cemeteries have rules and regulations to abide by. In front of my parents since 2010, these people have placed something there. If I got hurt today, there would be a problem,” Silva-Mello said. “I see my in-laws (graves), and they’re putting art on there. That’s unacceptable. I support rules and regs.”
Angelica Foreman objected.
“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.”
The cemetery board tackled another problem by suspending a $300 deposit fee for a grave site marker that Lewis was collecting until families could purchase a headstone. In March, the board voted to require every grave to be marked. Michelle Boone, who makes headstones, challenged the board, stating that the district is essentially selling markers, which is against the state’s health and safety code.
Rodriguez confronted board member Mike Villalta for not having his mother’s grave marked.
“So every person in this cemetery has to have a stone? How come no one was on you? ‘You got to get a headstone, you got to get a headstone,’” Rodriguez said.
Villalta’s mother died in 2008. He said he is working toward purchasing a headstone. Some responded to his statement by highlighting that the policy has been in place eight months and the rules state that families have 90 days to buy a headstone.
Anger and resentment continued when Villalta proposed letting Girl Scouts clean dirt out of flower containers. Foreman asked if the girls were going to be blamed when cemetery district personnel threw away the flowers.
“I’m not going to subject those little girls to this kind of treatment,” Villalta responded. “They aren’t even here to defend themselves. They’re going to be supervised; they want to earn their badges. As a former educator, I can’t stand this. Give them a chance.”
The board was expected to approve a new decorations policy this month but instead is having an attorney review it.
Enterprise reporter Corey Pride can be reached at (209) 388-6563 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.