Taken from the Denver Post Website: http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_26181403/jumbled-records-create-grave-…
Credit for all photos and text goes to the Denver Post.
Jerry Bauder stands at the grave marker for Vernon and Louisa Hastings at Sunset Memorial Gardens in Sterling. The cemetery fell into disrepair after about $300,000 that people had paid in “pre-need” contracts disappeared. (Photos by Kent Nishimura, The Denver Post)
When Bob and Lorraine James visited Cortez Cemetery on Memorial Day to place flowers on the graves of deceased relatives, they had quite a jolt.
“Oh, my goodness,” Lorraine remembers saying. “There is a headstone in the middle of my grave.”
A stranger’s cremains had been buried in the plot the couple had purchased for Lorraine 13 years ago in the shady north end of the cemetery even though stakes in the ground identified her final resting place and Bob’s adjoining plot as reserved.
It turns out that the Jameses are not the only unhappy cemetery patrons in the far southwest corner of Colorado — or in a handful of other mostly rural cemeteries around the state. The cemeteries operate under a law passed in 2012 that makes cemetery board business more transparent and tries to lessen conflict-of-interest spending by boards. But, in a state with little else in the way of cemetery regulation, the problems keep cropping up.
Messy record-keeping, lost records, revolving-door volunteer boards and underpaid cemetery workers have continued to inject doubt into the proverbial certainty of at least one half of death and taxes. Some of those who planned ahead for their demise, paid for their plots and hold deeds to them are having to find new graves.
Drought and neglect have created problems of another sort at other cemeteries.
A cemetery in Sterling, in the northeast corner of the state, evolved into such a woeful weed patch that about eight families opted in recent years to have loved ones dug up and moved to greener cemeteries. Citizens and businesses there have lately taken it on themselves to clean up the worst of the mess in Sunset Memorial Gardens and try to create a cemetery district through a ballot issue.
Then they hope to take on the issue statewide by persuading the legislature to pass more cemetery regulations.
“We want to approach some legislators to figure out how to regulate this,” said Larry Propp, a member of the Friends of Sunset Memorial Gardens who became involved when he found the vault for his son’s grave sticking out of the cemetery dirt.
These kinds of problems may not be widespread, but when they occur, the emotional toll can be deep.
The Jameses said they literally danced on their empty graves for their 40th wedding anniversary during a ceremony they held to show their plot purchases to their children.
“Those spots were chosen with great care. We blessed those spots,” Lorraine James said.
Barbara Lewis, an 83-year-old Cortez resident, had a similar experience.
“This was just the worst. My heart couldn’t take it anymore,” Lewis said of discovering last year that a Navajo woman’s remains had been buried in her husband’s plot next to the grave of their son, who had died in a car accident.
The Lewises spent more than $20,000 in attorney fees before settling out of court. They finally agreed to have their coffins stacked underground rather than buried side-by-side.
“It is embarrassing when something like this goes wrong. We have a problem with old records,” said Cortez Cemetery manager Chris Carlson. “Can it be fixed? The answer is ‘No, not completely.’ ”
Cortez is one of seven cemeteries that have had complaints lodged over the past decade with the Colorado attorney general’s office.
Sterling’s Sunset Memorial Gardens accounts for four of those complaints.
That cemetery fell into disrepair after a previous owner died and the approximately $300,000 people had paid in “pre-need” contracts for plots, coffins, plots and headstones disappeared. She had sold the cemetery to new owner Richard Lawler in 2009 for $10, and Lawler had allowed the cemetery to sprout goatheads and tumbleweeds.
Lawler, a Sterling attorney, did not return calls asking for comment. Cemetery volunteer board members say he has agreed to turn the property over to a governmental entity in Logan County. Details of that exchange are still being negotiated.
The local volunteers attempting to iron out problems at Sunset Memorial Gardens are receiving some help from the Colorado Association of Cemeteries, a group that has no regulatory oversight but has helped guide a number of cemeteries out of problems.
“We try to address things that seem to be out of order,” said Ken Durgin, who is with the association.
The out-of-order problems at Sunset Memorial Gardens included broken water pipes sticking out of the ground and graves that had sunk or were only half filled. Broken gravestones had been dumped in piles. There was no equipment — not even a lawnmower — to take care of anything.
“It was a mess, and it’s still a mess,” said Heath Carroll , owner of Carroll-Lewellen Funeral and Cremation in Longmont.
Carolyn Taylor, who is with the attorney general’s office, said she could not comment on specific complaints about Sunset Memorial Gardens. Because it is privately owned, there may be little the office can do to force a cleanup.
The attorney general’s office and the cemetery association several years ago facilitated changes at the Trinidad Catholic Cemetery in the San Luis Valley. That cemetery, controlled by a nonprofit board, was in disarray — on the grounds and in the record books. The board had filed inaccurate Internal Revenue Service reports and allowed the cemetery to fall into decay. One woman’s body had been moved without notifying a family.
The attorney general’s office convinced the association to reconstitute its board of directors, to hire an attorney to assist the board, to allow public comment at board meetings and to solicit bids for projects rather than handing them to companies with board-member connections.
A person who answered the phone at the cemetery office refused to comment on the changes made there.
In Pueblo, a citizens group has been working for several years to clean up a neglected cemetery. The group, Concerned Citizens for Colorado Cemeteries, did more than carry out cleanups at the gopher-infested and decrepit Roselawn Cemetery. Campaigning in T-shirts printed with a Benjamin Franklin quote — “One can tell the morals of a culture by the way they treat their dead” — the group also helped to shepherd through the 2012 law change.
That law, passed by the Colorado legislature, requires nonprofit cemetery boards to have at least one member who owns a plot in the cemetery. It also requires board meetings to be open to plot owners and for minutes of meetings to be available.
“It’s been a godsend,” said Concerned Citizens president Lucille Corsentino. Volunteers have also helped straighten out a small cemetery in the Western Slope farming town of Olathe, where records were a jumble of scribbled-out names and dates and where a baby’s grave was moved without explanation. That cemetery now has a new board and managers.
In Cortez, the cemetery board recently announced it will stop selling any more plots in older sections of the cemetery where records are nonexistent or scrambled.
Carlson said he is trying to make things right for those with plots in the cemetery.
“If I was just selling something at the hardware store and I sell the wrong hammer, it could be solved. They would come back and get another,” he said. “But when it is a grave, it is so emotional.”
Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/nlofholm