Cemetery cleanup policy assailed Families oppose plan to remove mementos from gravesites

October 19, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Over the years, graveside angels, crosses, plastic flowers, flags, pumpkins, vases, urns and even coffee mugs have cluttered Parkwood Cemetery, violating long-standing policy. So cemetery manager Lillian D. Mosley posted signs saying they'd have to be cleaned up, starting Nov. 1.

She's had no peace since.

"I got death threats by telephone, and some people told my maintenance workers they would kill them if they touched the graves," said Mosley, who took over the Taylor Avenue cemetery in June, after 25 years at the Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville. "That worried me."

The problem, said Mosley, is that many graves at the 210-acre, 78-year-old cemetery have become mini-shrines, piled with items and even landscaped and fenced, all against cemetery rules.

The previous management failed to enforce the rules. But when Mosley put up signs, some families asserted a right to place tributes on the graves.

Mosley has inherited a nearly impossible situation, said David J. Bell, president of the Maryland Free State Cemetery and Funeral Association, a trade group. Bell said standard industry practice prohibits permanent grave offerings, a rule patterned after one at Arlington National Cemetery.

"Nobody's going to win in this one," said Bell, who operates National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover. "The cemetery is legally right, but they can't win. They're the bad guys. People transfer their emotions to the graves."

Among the sites covered by the cleanup policy is the grave of Keri Ann Sirbaugh, a 21-year-old college studentslain outside her Hamilton home in June 1995 in a crime that remains unsolved.

Her father, William Sirbaugh of Parkville, is one of those affected by Parkwood's new enforcement policy.

Sirbaugh and Mosley met at the site Thursday during one of the cemetery visits he makes as often as three times a day. Sirbaugh said he cares for his daughter's grave and for the area around it, including trees that line a nearby path. The Sirbaughs also have placed a stone bench near Keri Ann's grave.

Sirbaugh told Mosley he would sue if the cemetery tries to force him to remove the grave items, but he said he is willing to talk.

Decorations such as statues and vases violate years-old regulations at Parkwood, which was founded in 1919 and bought in 1996 by Stewart Enterprises Inc., a Louisiana company that owns 120 cemeteries around the country. Stewart also prohibits the additional items, according to Mosley.

Mosley said that when she took over at Parkwood, she got complaints from plot owners about the increasingly poor appearance of the cemetery.

"One woman told me she has been coming here for a long time and it was beginning to look like a five-and-dime store," Mosley said. "She asked, 'Am I going to see pink flamingos next week?' "

The problem is mostly in the "bronze section," which was developed in the 1960s with bronze memorial plaques at ground level so mowers can pass over them easily.

Mosley said that the objects left there create problems for the 10-member maintenance crew and that visitors could be injured by broken glass, shattered ceramics or metal pieces left in the grass after mowing.

Mosley said she is determined to eliminate the worst excessesbut will compromise with families, including offering to move the graves without charge to the monument section.

Thomas Lidard, 79, a retired city firefighter from Hamilton, said he received permission to place a stone bench, a tree and his wife's favorite birdbath near her grave in 1992.

"Anything I did, I got permission in writing," Lidard said, adding that he hears frequent complaints about the cleanup during his daily visits to Parkwood.

Also bothered by plans to enforce the policy is the family of Lawrence Batton of Carney, who died in June 1996 and is buried in Parkwood's bronze section.

Seeing the decorated graves at Parkwood was the family's deciding factor in choosing the cemetery, said Batton's daughter, Lorrie. "We saw all those angels and things and thought it was something we could do, too," she said.

The Batton family has placed items on Batton's ground-level bronze marker, including two stone garden urns, religious statues, a flag and his coffee mug. The family also has placed a granite memorial bench under a nearby tree, with cemetery approval.

Lorrie Batton said she complained to Mark Feinroth, director of cemetery oversight, a new position created by the General Assembly. Feinroth, who said he is drafting statewide regulations for cemeteries, said he explained the formal complaint procedure to her, but he declined further comment.

Mosley, meanwhile, is determined to go ahead with enforcing the policy. "Parkwood is taking this seriously, and we are trying to restore the standards for the sake of all the plot owners," she said. She added that it will take "several years" to resolve the problem, "but I will do it."

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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