For 13 years, since their son died at age 23 in a car accident, Arlene and Larry Eidsvaag have visited his grave at the Kingston Evergreen Cemetery. It brings them comfort, and they make sure his tombstone is tidy, including the small angel-on-a-stick that perches in the grass next to it.
But on Labor Day weekend this year, the couple and others who have loved ones buried in the cemetery found their mementoes — plantings, flags, figurines — removed. The items were put in plastic bags and secured to the tombstones or stored behind the cemetery chapel.
The stored items could be picked up only during one hour on Aug. 31, according to a note inside the bags, which said the items were in violation of new cemetery regulations. After 30 days, they would be destroyed.
Mary Rizzo, whose son Jonathan is buried at Evergreen, was out of town that weekend. A friend of Jonathan’s found the piece of driftwood with his name etched on it dumped in a bucket. “The way they did it was so hurtful and disrespectful,” said Rizzo, whose 19-year-old son was murdered in 2001.
Irate and grieving relatives of people buried in Evergreen swarmed a recent meeting of the cemetery’s board of trustees and demanded an explanation.
“To find a Ziploc tied to my son’s headstone, I can’t even begin to tell you how degrading that was to me,” said Arlene Eidsvaag. “It was a little angel on a stick in the flower bed. It’s not even a statue. Why? I want to know why. Because I have to tell you, you ripped my heart out that day.”
The cemetery trustees listened as sons, daughters, parents, and siblings spoke out against the new regulations that prohibit many of the personal items around tombstones — and especially about their manner of removal.
One woman said she wanted to take her brother out of the cemetery. “Do you understand how hard it is not to leave something for your loved ones?” asked Pamela Torrey, whose brother Robert was killed in a car accident eight years ago at the age of 22. “You guys need to let us take care of our loved ones.”
Though the rules went into effect Aug. 1, many relatives did not learn of them until they found the items removed.
Elizabeth Binari and her brother David were at the meeting to protest the removal of flags — American, Navy, and P.O.W. — from their father’s grave. Richard Binari was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War.
“They were bagged, tagged, and we had one hour on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend to pick them up,” she said. “It was near the anniversary of his death, and it was very upsetting for my mother.”
Mary Rizzo reminded trustees that the families, who pay for the plots, “are the stakeholders here. Who do you think you represent?”
Rizzo said that in recent years regulations have gotten tougher, and that she has removed items such as candles and chimes that were prohibited. “But Jonathan’s angel was there 12 years, and when I got it back recently, it was chipped. It was not respectfully removed, and it was very upsetting.”
The families asked why the regulations keep changing, and noted that the trinkets people leave are comforting for them. “You cannot believe the degree of comfort you get to know that someone has been there to visit your child,” Rizzo said.
They told the board that without any personal items around gravestones, the cemetery is sterile and barren and noted that at nearby cemeteries, loved ones can take whatever comforts them.
Cemetery trustee Ralph Calderaro told the families that the rules were revamped in response to complaints. In addition, he said, the groundskeeper has complained about graves “overflowing with mementoes” that keep him from properly mowing — a charge that families who know the groundskeeper questioned.
According to the amended rules, the changes were made “in order to maintain a safe, pleasant, and dignified burial ground.” The changes include: only one crane hook no taller than four feet may be placed in front of a grave for a hanging plant; one statue reflecting an expression of faith not to exceed 16 inches in height can be displayed after the lot owner has submitted a written form including a photograph to the board, and the board has approved it.
Only one flag, the American flag, may be displayed. In addition, in December only one Christmas wreath or spray may be placed on a grave site. Spring and summer plants must be removed by Oct. 1, fall flowers by Dec. 1, Christmas flowers by April 1.
No vigil lights, statues, wind chimes, banners, balloons or stuffed animals, or “any other decoration,” are permitted, nor are trees, bushes, evergreens, or perennials.
During the meeting, trustees told the public that “inappropriate items” such as alcohol bottles and cigarette packages had been placed on some gravestones.
Arlene Eidsvaag agreed that those things have no place in the cemetery. But she disagreed with the new regulations. “This cemetery lacks character,” she said. “Before, you had flowers, balloons and things. Now, it’s just headstones and grass. There’s no reflection of our love here, and it looks awful.”
She and her husband also objected to the fact that pennies and small stones left on their son’s tombstone — a mark of respect and love in the Jewish faith — had been removed.
Julie Wilkinson’s sister, mother, grandmother, and aunt are buried at Evergreen. Tearfully, she described finding the small glass globe and some angel stones she had placed at their sites removed.
Her sister was 15 when she died in a car accident, and her mother recently died. “Why didn’t anyone call to let me know?” she asked.
The trustees told the family members that they would discuss the matter at their next meeting, for possible reconsideration. “It’s a rather fluid situation,” said Calderaro.
After the meeting, trustee Norman Tucker said the situation at the cemetery had gotten “totally out of hand in the past few years, with people defying the rules, things hanging from the trees.”
Meanwhile, Mary Rizzo is awaiting word on a weeping angel, perhaps eight inches tall, that has been on her son’s gravestone “since day one.” She submitted a written request, with a photo, to the trustees.
“Her wings are a few inches too big,” said Rizzo. “I’m hoping they’ll approve her.”Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.