Los Banos cemetery board loses its leader

cpride@losbanosenterprise.comJuly 31, 2013 

The leader of the Los Banos District Cemetery Board resigned last week for personal reasons amid a controversy about what can and cannot be placed on graves and recent questions about fees.

Board President Duane Brehm resigned July 17 because of a death in the family. He said his nephew died and he needs to spend more time with loved ones.

"I'm on the other side," he said, indicating that through his family he's using the cemetery's services instead overseeing them.

Brehm declined to state whether his personal circumstances have changed his stance on what should be allowed at the cemetery. Geri Alves has been named board president.

For the past few months the cemetery district has been dealing with a desire by family members to leave mementos against the facility's need to keep its maintenance workers safe.

Families visiting the cemetery have noticed flowers, angels, lights and other items placed at their loved ones' graves weren't there anymore. Cemetery Manager Deborah Lewis has overseen their removal, storing them in a nearby shed in most cases and throwing items away if they had been damaged.

Lewis' actions have upset some to the point of wanting to relocate their deceased family members. Others are appalled that their gestures of remembrance are no longer being allowed.

Michelle Boone, who makes headstones, said she's heard many of her clients complain about the management at the Los Banos cemetery.

"I don't think she's very open to what the families have to say," Boone said of Lewis. "Managing a cemetery is not like managing Walmart. She's creating more rules without consulting families. You have a huge PR problem."

Lewis declined to speak to the Enterprise on the record, but cemetery district officials have defended her as simply enforcing existing policies.

Cemetery policy prohibits shrines of any kind: toys, boxes, gloves, wind-blown devices, glass objects, metal, rocks, ceramics, wax and other items. Despite vases being provided for flowers near many gravesites, some people have placed flowers at their loved ones' final resting place in containers made from material banned by the cemetery. Other families string lights along the graves of family members.

In May, some families were asked to remove homemade crosses from graves.

Boone has a complaint of her own. She said Lewis is collecting a $300 deposit for markers in case families do not purchase a headstone. Boone said she believes the practice is unnecessary and causes Merced County extra time and money when county staff have to issue refunds after the headstones are bought.

Boone also has an issue with the Los Banos Cemetery charging families a $185 fee for the pavilion, whether families use it for funeral services or not. Boone said the deposit and the pavilion fee are an economic burden.

"That's $485 extra on a family where most of them are struggling," she said.

Alves said the cemetery's policies are under review and all complaints are being taken under advisement.

"We are taking everyone's comments on a difficult situation," Alves said. "I'd rather not make public comments while we are working on the policy."

The cemetery board will have a review of the policy on the agenda at its Aug. 19 meeting at 6 p.m. at 6575 S. Center Ave.

Enterprise reporter Corey Pride can be reached at (209) 388-6563 or by email at cpride@losbanosenterprise.com.

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