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Cemetery clean up angers family members

By ERICA RODRIGUEZ
Oct. 29, 2010 at 5:29 a.m.

Estolia Garcia looks over items that were removed from graves during the Memory Gardens Cemetery cleanup. Estolia said she was not given enough notice before the cleanup, which cemetery officials said was needed because of maintenance hazards.

a closer look Cemetery cleanups are usually done once a year at the Memory Gardens and Memorial Park cemeteries in the spring.

The cemetery does not allow glass, wilted flowers, loose stone or granite items around the marker except for recent burials.

The family-owned company owns five cemeteries in the state and three funeral homes, five of which are in the Victoria area.

The family has more than 20 years experience in cemetery industry.

Estolia "Toya" Garcia was digging through a cemetery Dumpster eight months after burying her husband.

Twelve-year-old candle holders, flowers and $100 solar lights were removed from her family's six plots during the Oct. 4 clean ups of Memory Gardens and Memorial Park cemeteries.

"I was horrified," she said, a few weeks later, standing near the same Dumpster. Many of the items pulled from the graves were still there. Small statues, a few frayed flowers, a Toy Story character and angels caked in dirt were strewn near the trash.

"I just think it was heartless and it hurt us," Garcia said. "It opened up the wounds that we're just now beginning to - you never get past it."

Garcia, who drives by the park every day, watches over the grave.

"Every night, I get off at 10, I would go by and I would wave at him and say, 'I'm going home, dad.' And I would see the lights," she said.

She learned about the clean up after seeing his darkened grave. The next day, everything was gone.

Jamie Pruett found a similar situation visiting her father's grave.

"It was like he was dug up," she said, after finding a flat stone she'd halfway buried to mark his grave removed.

"It looked like he was dug up because of the ground. How could you do that," she said.

Pruett said the stone had been there three years and she had never been told it was against the rules.

The two felt there wasn't adequate communication or rules enforcement.

Cemetery cleanups are typical for the businesses.

Shane Reedy, chief financial officer with the family-owned Memory Gardens and Memorial Park, said cleanups are usually in March, but after multiple complaints about the items and the clear weather, the company decided to clean up.

"We didn't feel like it wasn't something that could wait until next spring," he said.

The cemetery ran a three-inch, one column notice in the Advocate the weekend before the cleanup, and put up a signs around the cemetery.

"We feel like there was adequate notification . we never intended in any way any ill will to any family. This was not a personal incident at all," he said.

Regulations around the park also spell out no glass, granite or stone items around the graves, but Garcia said her items had been out for more than 10 years.

"I can see they had to remove some stuff that was broken or it was interfering with them cutting the yard, but not the way they went about it," Garcia said. "It's just disgusting to see everything thrown. Trashed."

Catholic cemeteries in the area also remove items once a year to keep the grounds clean and safe, said Gary Rangnow, director of the Victoria Catholic cemeteries.

"We try very hard to respect the families feelings and we understand there's a lot of emotions involved," he said.

Rangnow said glass items often break, get swept into lawn mowers and nearly hit a worker once. Fire ants attack rained-soaked stuffed animals and deflated balloons tangle into shrubs.

Reedy said a large metal hook once caught in a lawn mower and shot into a car.

He said although some of the illegal items hadn't been removed in the past, the rule enforcement will be different.

"We just felt it necessary to enforce the rules and regulations and go forward and maintain it," he said.

Notifying the family members any other way would be impossible, both said.

"There's no way that we could have called all of the families through all of the parks because you're talking about thousands of spaces," Reedy said.

Rangnow uses the same newspaper notice method but runs his for 90 days and places large signs at each cemetery gates.

Reedy encouraged families to work with him to memorialize the grave sites by etching photos or words on markers.

"Our philosophy is we strongly encourage the families to personalize that memoralization," he said.

Weeks after the cleanup, Garcia still hasn't recovered all of her items and plans to have a lawyer help her get reimbursed for the lights.

The items will stay on site near the office until most have been collected. Garcia and Pruett recovered most of theirs and are still figuring how to honor their dead family members in a different way.

"What can we do?" Pruett said. "They're already here. We're not going to move them."

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