Sue Taylor surveyed a desolate landscape of personal memories.
There were statuettes of angels and framed photos of smiling children, baby rattles and necklaces, a Peeps candy-shaped stuffed toy, and a 2.5-foot wooden cross with a hand-carved message. hand that said “DESCANSO HERMANA” – or “STAY SISTER”.
“It breaks my heart,” she said.
It looked like the aftermath of a tornado. But it was a quiet corner of historic Tulocay Cemetery in Napa. The items had been removed from the burial sites by management and taken to a paved area next to two large dumpsters, for the families to collect. The collection had doubled in size days earlier, before Taylor’s Nextdoor.com post raised awareness of the issue among locals.
Since then, dozens of Napa residents have commented on social media, most of them furious at what they perceive to be callousness on the part of the Tulocay Cemetery, which was founded in 1859 and is the last resting place of a number of pioneers and prominent citizens. .
Tulocay CEO Jeff Gerlomes declined to speak officially. But he released a statement on Thursday afternoon, emphasizing his sympathy for the bereaved while explaining the reasons for the policy and noting that it has been in place for years.
“Our cemetery guidelines have been consistent over the decades and materials other than flowers are not permitted,” Gerlomes wrote. “…We regularly allow other items to stay, but usually a week after designated holidays we try to collect them. We haven’t been perfect and because people often leave sentimental items behind, we don’t immediately throw them away.
Cathy McQueen’s husband is buried in Napa Valley Memorial Park, south of the city, and there it’s common to see all kinds of intimate decorations, she said. Tulocay Cemetery, where McQueen’s daughter Nicki is buried, approaches it differently. But Tulocay does not seem to be an exception to this practice.
Calls to half a dozen Sonoma County cemeteries revealed a range of approaches. But five of the six have official guidelines prohibiting anything beyond flowers in approved durable vases, and four said they actively enforce the restriction.
“We are not militant about this. But there are reasons for this policy,” said Carolyn Fulton, manager of Cypress Hill Memorial Park in Petaluma. “It has a lot to do with lawn maintenance. When you end up with too many personal items, it adds things that can break – employees can potentially get hurt, even guests. This can damage the equipment.
There is nothing in the state cemetery and funeral law to guide businesses on how to collect and distribute personal items, according to a representative from the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau. It is left to the discretion of each service provider.
Cathy McQueen and her daughter Coral said their interactions with Tulocay staff were cordial and acknowledged that the decorations they placed on Nicki’s grave sometimes intruded a bit on Oliver P. Hammond (d. 1899). But they are convinced that the cemetery action was unnecessary and out of scale.
“Why did that little balloon hurt your mower?” wondered Coral McQueen.
The week after Easter, the family had decorated Nicki’s yard with bunnies, real and artificial flowers, a welcome sign, and “cute little pebbles” that Nicki’s three kids had laid out, among other things. All that was left after the sweep was one of the two large succulents they had put in place.
Coral McQueen first posted her dismay on Facebook a few weeks ago. At the time, she was directed to the recovery area up the hill. She found a single blanket that her aunt had placed over the grave. On Thursday, she spotted a pinwheel with pink flowers which she thinks may have been there too.
It’s been a brutal seven months for the McQueens. Nicki, a woman they described as “a ball of fire”, died on Halloween, aged 33.
“So many things have changed in our lives because of this,” Coral said. “And for this company to come and steal that is literally like pouring salt into an open wound.”
The family spent a lot of time looking for the perfect site for Nicki’s burial. They found one that they considered particularly beautiful. It’s in cemetery area 71, which is Nicki’s favorite number, 7. Now they have reservations.
“I wish we had the chance to bury him somewhere else,” Coral McQueen said. “Because it’s horrible. It’s disgusting.”
The controversy highlights the difficult path for members of the bereavement industry, who are tasked with comforting people experiencing the rawest of emotions, many of whom may have competing expectations.