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COLUMN

Rules to die by: Mother condemns cemetery cleansing as 'grave robbing'

Ban on Christmas decorations not enforced until recently, official says

Saturday, December 15, 2012 - 8:09 am

You're not supposed to place flowers on Greenlawn Memorial Park's 23,000 graves between Thanksgiving and Feb. 28. It says so on the big, unavoidable sign just inside the entrance off Covington Road.

But when the sudden and unannounced enforcement of a long-ignored rule results in a pile of pots, bouquets and ornaments stashed behind the cemetery office, the fine line between grief and anger can evaporate.

And so meet Tami Dennon, whose longstanding Christmas tradition of decorating the graves of four relatives – including two of her children – has filled her with anything but holiday joy because of the perceived callous indifference with which the memorials she and others lovingly placed were removed.

“I knew the rules but never paid attention. I've been doing this for years and (Greenlawn) has never done anything about it,” said Dennon as she wiped tears from her eyes. “My son is all alone. (The dead) are forgotten every day, and when I see a grave with nothing on it I think, 'What a shame.'

“I find what the cemetery did morally offensive, like grave robbing. They have forgotten who they are there to serve. It's not about the dead. It's about the living, who go to mourn, honor and find comfort.”

Instead, her discomfort has been exacerbated by the fact that she learned about the tougher enforcement not from the cemetery, but after the fact from family members who had visited the graves and were shocked by what they saw – or what they didn't see.

Appearances are judged by the eye of the beholder, of course, and Greenlawn officials should not be faulted for wanting to provide a visually distinctive and well-maintained facility. Without rules, the cemetery could quickly become overrun with an unsightly and ultimately disrespectful hodgepodge of who-knows-what.

Even so, Stefanie Malott, assistant manager of Greenlawn and two other local cemeteries operated by the Dignity Memorial Network, acknowledged that the ban against winter decorations had not been enforced in the past. She also offered a practical and legitimate reason for doing so now: Unless the grave vases are removed or turned over during cold weather, they can fill with water, freeze and then break – an avoidable expense no business would want.

And should they become covered with snow, the low-lying vases could pose a safety hazard. That's why winter decorations are limited to wreaths and trees secured to portable wire stands.

“We never meant to upset anyone. We know the holidays are hard (for some people),” Malott said.

That’s certainly true for Dennon. Although two of the graves in the Greenlawn family plot belong to her grandparents, one contains the remains of her daughter Danielle, who died at birth in 1983, and another her son Derek, who was just 20 when he died in 2005.

During the Christmas season especially, Dennon's thoughts turn to the family gatherings that might have been. And now that wistful grief is compounded with an anger that transcends the $100 she spent on flowers.

Malott, who said Greenlawn has traditionally removed leftover decorations in the spring and earlier in the fall, said Dignity will probably review its policies for all three cemeteries – possibly allowing decorations over Christmas -- and will do its best to inform plot owners should a change occur.

That willingness to communicate is especially welcome, since the lack of advance warning – not the rules themselves – created the situation Dennon and others faced. Keeping thousands of customers informed is difficult, but is downright impossible if an attempt is not even made.

This week, a vase filled with flowers was back on Derek Dennon's grave. His mother doesn't know who put it there, and there's no guarantee it will remain for long. But Tami Dennon knows one thing.

“My son's grave won't be empty at Christmas,” she vowed. If that requires buying a “legal” decoration, so be it. She's also willing to provide new vases if necessary. Such things are the only gifts still within her power to give.

Some will accuse Tami Dennon of an emotional overreaction, as if limits can be imposed on a mother's love for her children, living or dead. Others will blame the cemetery for “putting profits before people,” which would be unfair, and for failing to communicate its policy change in advance.

That's a legitimate criticism, because if the rules had been properly communicated, understood and followed, this is one “bah, humbug” story that never would have been written.

Lack of a sequel next year would be a blessing, because regardless of who was at fault, Dennon was right: There was absolutely no “dignity” to be found in that discarded pile of once-cherished memories.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355