Families Express Grief After Gravesite Memorabilia is Removed

City of Marshfield Hillside Cemetery Policy Enforcement Not Communicated Well, Said Residents

OnFocus – Each year, Hillside Cemetery policy states that grave decorations be removed by October 1, specifically “anything stuck in the ground or around headstones.” This can include solar lights, shepherd hooks, and other memorabilia.

“Do not leave items for disposal at the cemetery; take all items with you to dispose of properly. Anything left after October 1 will be removed by cemetery staff,” a cemetery notice reads, adding that items can be placed again starting May 1 of the following spring.

This year, many families were surprised to find the policy being actively enforced, and years of cherished gravesite memorabilia being removed and discarded in piles on cemetery property.

Lisa Duellman has been maintaining her parents’ graves for 25 years and said this is the first time she’s ever had something removed.

“When this was brought to my attention, it really upset me,” she said. “I feel this is disrespectful to our families. This is a place where most of us spend time with our loved ones who have passed on.”

Tiffany Zawislan and family have been maintaining her son’s gravesite for over a decade, and she said this was also the first year her shepherd hook was removed.

“I was just heartbroken and sick with this news. I know that all items need to be removed by October 1, but we have never had this happen in the past. Former cemetery manager Mike Baltus was just fantastic with letting us keep them up,” she said.

Trisha Mayer’s mother was buried in Hillside in April 2007, and she often visits. When she stopped by last week, she saw all the items that had been collected over the years removed from her grave.

“I was shocked and saddened,” she said. “I did see previously that there was a sign saying items needed to be removed by October 1st, but it has never been enforced before.  I called the cemetery the day after I noticed everything was removed.  They told me it has been a rule since 2005. I asked why it is finally being enforced and was told it was because a snowblower was damaged last year by a decoration. I wish there had been a notice saying that it would actually be enforced this year. People are heartbroken.”

Tammy Miller Kmiec has maintained her mother’s grave for the past four years, along with multiple other family gravesites that her family has maintained for more than 50 years. Kmiece and her husband did their annual gravesite cleanup prior to the October 1 deadline.

“My husband and I had gone up to our parents’ graves the week prior to pull the little things from the ground as we always do because we know of the October 1 removal,” she explained. “So, we did the same as we have practiced in the past – took the small things. l left flowers in vase, left shepherd and flag hangers and angel statues.  We like to decorate for fall and Christmas too – we don’t forget about our loved ones with change of seasons.”

Kmiec then saw a post on Facebook about gravesite memorabilia having been removed from a friend’s family member’s gravesite.

“Though it was dark out, we took a flash light and drove to the cemetery, we could see our flowers were gone as we could see gone from many graves,” she said. The next day, Kmiec learned about the memorabilia collection at the back of the cemetery where the discarded items had been piled.

“We hurried back up there, the hook on my moms husband grave that has been in the same spot for over 30 years gone, the angels were still there but we took them for fear of them getting tossed,” she said. “We drove to the pile to begin to look. Absolutely heartbreaking!”

Kmiec said the cemetery had posted a sign asking that items be removed by October 1, but in the past decades she can’t recall a time where it was put into practice.

“I know they posted a sign, but it doesn’t say ‘we never practiced this in the past but if you don’t we are throwing all you loved one’s stuff away,'” she said. “I was told they put it in the paper but we all know very few get the paper nowadays. It is so sad to see that pile, and things broken now, too. What are people that don’t live here going to think or feel when they come and see their stuff gone?”

Zawislan, Kmiec, and Mayer expressed disappointed in the City of Marshfield for not providing clear communication to families maintaining gravesites, something that Parks and Recreation Director Justin Casperson said the City is improving.

“We have made several improvements to operations over the years,” said Casperson. “We will continue to improve our communication with customers. The staff have identified new ways for people to honor their loved ones in which we hope to establish in the next year.”

Casperson added that each September, the public is notified that items in the cemetery will be removed in October, and that notices were placed on the City website, newspapers, facebook, signs at the cemetery, signs on the doors, radio announcements, verbal conversations with customers, as well as information provided on customer transaction receipts.

Photo courtesy of Tammy Kmiec

Casperson said that the removal was in an effort to beautify and improve the cemetery grounds.

“A cemetery is place to mourn, honor and reflect on the loss of a loved one. Cemetery staff take their jobs seriously, and make every attempt to beautify, and improve the grounds,” said Casperson. “No one takes joy in removing items from a gravesite, nor is removing items each fall from the cemetery a fun and exciting part of the job. However, to keep things from becoming tawdry the items need to be removed at some point. At some point, items left behind for loved need to be removed, and there is no ‘perfect’ time or ‘ideal’ situation in which everyone will be excited and happy the items are being removed. So, each fall, before snow covers up the items or freezes them into the ground, staff remove the items and set them aside just in case a family member or friend want to reclaim the items. There are some negative attributes of the job, but this is by the far worst part. Striking a balance between honoring our loved ones and respecting and caring for the entire property is not easy.”

In response to the public outrage this year, Casperson said that the prevalence of social media allows news to spread quickly, but doesn’t always contain the full story.

“This is not something new, but with social media, it is more shareable and viewable.  People can quickly capture a video or picture and share their opinion without considering the entire situation. Our society is quick to judge and comment before getting the full story,” he said. “Sometimes based on the how sensitive the item may be; it can spread and manifest quickly.”

With over 18,000 gravesites at the cemetery, Casperson said there are thousands of items left behind.

“They leave behind many different items like the traditional flowers, shepherds hooks, solar lights, crosses, & angels, plus the items you might not think of like beer cans, bottles of alcohol, packs of cigarettes, knives, ammo shell casings, teddy bears, statues, garden gnomes, rocks, bricks, plant trees, fences, street signs, etc…,” he said. “Now, if you will, imagine trying to mow around 18,000 gravestones, plus all the items left at gravesite, to not knock over the gravestones, or damage the piece of equipment you are operating all while trying to show respect for deceased and the items left by loved ones.”

“Much of the items get damaged, knocked over or displaced by Mother Nature,” he added.

Though the City’s intentions were to remove items in an effort to maintain the property, many families feel that more could be done to communicate this year’s plan to enforce policy.

“I understand policy, but when you never practice it you need to let people know that NOW

Photo courtesy of Tammy Kmiec

you have decided to enforce,” said Kmiec. “There is a City truck there every time I am at the cemetery – they see people coming and going from graves – why didn’t they start letting people know, ‘hey we are enforcing this year.'”

“I wish I had a place to store all that stuff and I knew who it all belonged to because I would make sure it got back,” added Kmiec. “How sad the cemetery is going to look for the upcoming holidays.”

“You could not pay me any amount of money to be the one to remove such valuable items from someone’s last resting place,” added Mayer. “The items are left by family and friends as mementos of care and love.  It helps people grieve.”

Casperson said the City will work with people that are upset and angry to address concerns.

“This is a very big challenge and many people get very emotional. We have and we will continue to sympathize and work with those people who are angry about the situation,” said Casperson. “Death and mourning of loved ones who have passed, is highly sensitive and emotional, and something we take seriously. We understand and appreciate everyone’s situation and we will work with the families.”

“As for the people who make threatening & disparaging comments on social media websites; it is not appreciated and nor should it be encouraged to shoot, harm or fire cemetery staff,” he added. “Please reach out to the cemetery employees before taking these extreme and drastic measures. With the recent riots, and shootings across the country, we in Marshfield should not encourage such things.”

The mission of the Hillside Cemetery is to assist with interments; provide care and maintenance of the grounds and equipment; maintain accurate records; and serve as a resource for individuals seeking locations of burial sites of loved ones. The Cemetery also strives to continue to look for ways to narrow the gap between operating revenues and expenditures to minimize the property tax subsidy for operations.

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