The state faces and responds to maintaining the ability of cemeteries to survive
When Maria Castro found her mother’s headstone toppled in early February at the Sebastopol Lawn Memorial Cemetery, she was devastated.
“I got in the car and called my brother crying,” she told me. “What a shock to come out and visit and see the whole thing down there.”
When I went with Castro to the burial site last week, the tombstone – which had first been knocked down by workers preparing another burial site – was finally standing again. The process, however, took several weeks and repeated attempts by Castro and his brother to reach cemetery management and get results.
It was kind of a drop in the bucket for Castro who visits most weeks. She has long noted the gopher holes, dry patches and overgrowth that creep over many tombstones, making it impossible to tell who is buried where in certain areas.
“I picked up a group of relatives and it’s all covered,” she tells me, explaining that many families, including hers, pull out their own cleaning supplies and tools to maintain their loved ones’ plots.
“I could never find my loved ones unless I spent a day or two here.”
For Ron Crouch of Sevastopol, it took much longer than that.
Couldn’t find parents’ gravestone
“Two years ago, I went over Christmas to bring flowers to my in-laws and my parents, and we couldn’t even find my parents’ headstones,” Crouch tells me, adding that he was unable to reach the owner for assistance. . “I still haven’t found them. That really ticked me off.
While Crouch’s wife knows where her parents are buried and keeps the graves clean herself, she would still wait for the birth and death dates to be added to her mother’s headstone – and her mother was buried there. years old.
Stephen Lang says maintaining the 20-acre Sebastopol Memorial Lawn Cemetery was always a problem before he took over in the late 1980s. he.
Although Lang acknowledges that some sections are neglected, he says they are working to get things cleaned up, and if someone requests care for a particular burial site, “we pay attention to it.”
He also adds that it has been particularly difficult to find regular workers during the pandemic.
“I do what I can with what I have,” he tells me as we sit in the trailer on the property he uses as his office.
His numerous paper files and logbooks surround him at his desk. He maintains that he is there almost every day, but often in the park and calls back when he receives a message. (He had a problem with his voicemail service delivering messages at one point, but that’s now fixed, he says.)
A look at state records reveals that the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, a branch of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, initiated disciplinary action against Lang this year for issues including lack of proper supervision and maintenance. which could lead to the permanent revocation of his license.
Until the state complaint is resolved, Lang cannot renew his state cemetery manager license.
That being said, during my visit, workers, including a volunteer who regularly helps out at the cemetery, do indeed maintain the grounds. In some areas, lawns are weeded, trees are pruned and tombstones are polished.
There is also a lot of history here. Sebastopol Memorial Lawn is the resting place of a pre-war Japanese community; a member of the Donner Party; local historical figure “Dutch Bill” Howard; and pioneer and Reverend John Miller Camron, an associate of Abraham Lincoln, among others.
Still, all of this isn’t very comforting to Castro and Crouch, and the cemetery’s mixed online reviews reflect that complicated picture.
Several people complain about maintenance issues and absentee management, but others are grateful for the natural setting, affordable prices and “compassionate owner” and note that this is a rare site offering burials green (a more natural and environmentally friendly burial practice).
A systemic challenge
These tensions at Sebastopol Memorial Lawn may speak to a more systemic, industry-wide problem that extends far beyond the cemetery.
Years ago, private cemeteries became legally required to establish what are known as “Endowment Care Trust Funds,” consisting of a one-time fee charged for each burial space sold to help pay for maintenance. .
The idea was to keep cemeteries from falling into disrepair – especially when income dwindles as the space fills up – by providing an additional stream of income to be used for care and repairs in perpetuity.