Woman has stroke, dies at mother's burial Cemetery's tardiness digging grave for older relative angered family

November 09, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

If her mother's grave had been dug Monday, Janice D. Fox might be alive today, family members believe.

Instead, the 44-year-old hospital secretary is scheduled to be buried this afternoon in the same Prince George's County cemetery where she had a stroke five days ago while others argued over the cemetery's failure to prepare the grave.

It is a cruel irony for family and friends who had gathered Monday to bury Juanita M. Hawkins, Fox's 64-year-old mother, at Harmony Memorial Park in Temple Hills. Several dozen people were left waiting for at least 90 minutes until workers eventually summoned a backhoe to excavate a grave in the family plot.

At least one of the mourners was so angered by events that he allegedly attacked a cemetery employee in a fight that eventually involved four people. Five Prince George's County police cars were dispatched to the scene. Witnesses said Fox tried to convince the officers to stop questioning mourners until her mother was buried, but without success.

She collapsed minutes later.

"It just sounds so unreal. People ask if it's really true. It's still sinking in with me, too, said Juanita R. Fox, 29, Fox's daughter. "She was tired. Her body couldn't take anymore. It was stress."

Cemetery officials declined to comment on the incident yesterday.

The director of the funeral home that handled arrangements said he was appalled by the cemetery's actions. He said his employees were so upset by the incident that half his staff went home ill Monday.

"No apology was ever made, not even to me," said Lawrence W. Plunkett, owner of Plunkett Funeral Home in Northeast Washington. "She wasn't even all that upset at first, but then her brother got involved and she got upset and all the craziness happened."

A spokesman for Prince George's County police said charges may be brought against three people involved in the fight. He declined to disclose the name of the cemetery worker who was allegedly assaulted or the people under investigation.

According to a police report, officers were told by witnesses that one of the suspects went into the cemetery office and stated, "I can't understand why the grave wasn't dug. I'm ready to beat a [expletive.]"

"Three suspects jumped [a cemetery worker] and beat him in the head and body," according to the report. "Office employees helped the victim, and the suspects fled in an unknown #i direction."

Plunkett, who saw the altercation, said only one person attacked the cemetery employee and only because he was provoked by the worker's lack of respect for the family's situation. Two others entered the fray only to pull the men apart, he said.

Juanita Fox identified one of the men in the fight as her uncle James Fox. Mr. Fox could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Miss Fox said her mother ate well and exercised regularly, but smoked cigarettes. Aside from minor complaints such as arthritis in one wrist, she was in good health, Miss Fox said.

Janice Fox's death certificate lists the cause of death as a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a type of stroke that occurs when an aneurysm bursts in a large artery in the membrane surrounding the brain. High blood pressure can put someone at greater risk for such a stroke, according to medical experts.

Carolyn T. Jacobi, an activist who campaigns against cemetery fraud and abuse, said Harmony's failure to have the grave ready is not an isolated incident. She said she has heard reports of numerous similar problems there.

The cemetery drew sharp criticism four years ago for its practice of mingling the ashes of Washington's unclaimed dead in mass graves.

"You shouldn't wait until the family gets there to dig a grave," Jacobi said.

She said the incident underscores the need for greater government regulation. She said she plans to present the case to a 25-member state task force that is studying the cemetery and funeral industry.

One reason the family was surprised to find no grave Monday is that cemetery officials insisted on being paid for their service on the previous Friday. Janice Fox paid the required $845 in cash that day, and relatives have the receipt.

Cemetery officials have agreed not to charge for their services today, according to Plunkett and family members.

Juanita Fox said she is still upset with police for forcing relatives to submit to questioning before they could bury her grandmother, who died of kidney failure Oct. 30 at a Washington nursing home.

Pub Date: 11/09/96

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