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Artificial flowers not welcome at Mt. Hope

What about Greenwood, Holy Cross, El Camino?

Cemeteries may offer their permanent residents the opportunity to Rest in Peace, but for the living who visit them, there are rules and regulations.
Cemeteries may offer their permanent residents the opportunity to Rest in Peace, but for the living who visit them, there are rules and regulations.

One day in late March, I got a call from Louise Wyatt. I had just interviewed her for a story on how genetic genealogy had enabled detectives to solve the murder of her daughter Michelle, forty years after the pretty young college student was found strangled to death in her Santee condominium. A few days after the interview, I had accompanied Louise to Mount Hope Cemetery. She has visited Michelle’s grave there every Sunday morning since October 1980, when her daughter was buried. Now, Louise wanted to know if I could help her with a vexing, on-again, off-again dispute with the cemetery over the flowers she brought to decorate Michelle’s grave.

Initially, she said, she would bring fresh flowers on her weekly visits. But after noticing that by the time she returned to the cemetery, the flowers she had brought the previous week had wilted and were falling apart, she switched to silk flowers from Michael’s: a colorful mix of daisies and roses. All was well and good until one Sunday morning a few months later, when Louise arrived at the grave and found her flowers gone. She contacted the cemetery office and was told that new management had come in. Silk flowers — or any other sort of artificial flowers — were no longer welcome. “I wrote letters,” she explained. “I sent all kinds of letters — personal, you know — to the manager. And they told me there are no exceptions: ‘No one will have silk flowers.’ I told them, ‘There will be one.’ And from that point on, they left the flowers alone — until one day, they started disappearing again.” Since then, she said, it’s been something of a roller-coaster, as she has dealt with a succession of managers. Her impassioned letters have received responses that ranged from defiant to sympathetic. But either way, the dynamic was liable to change once a new manager arrived.

Place

Mount Hope Cemetery

3751 Market Street, San Diego

When she called me in March, Louise had just had what she considered a particularly unnerving exchange with the latest managerial arrival. “He was very rude,” she said. “He told me if I bring those silk flowers again, they’re going to be gone. Well, that just set me off. I can’t buy Michelle a pretty little dress, or a new car, or anything like that. Bringing her flowers is all I can do. So that’s why I do it. And I told this guy, ‘Do not bother the flowers.’ And the next time my husband and I went, yep, her flowers were gone.”

I promised Louise I would look into the matter, but then I forgot about it until June. When I called her, she said everything was fine again. “I sent the manager a registered letter, telling him to leave my flowers alone. Then I went down there and talked to him. He was not a nice man. He told me, ‘You can call the city if you want.’ Then I said, ‘No, I’m not going to call the city. I’ll call the news media.’ And he didn’t like that. He just looked down real quick and didn’t say a darn word. So he didn’t like that at all. But so far, the flowers are there, and the cemetery is not bothering me. So I’ll wait and see what happens. I just don’t want them touching her flowers.”

  • * * *

Life’s a bitch, as the expression goes, and then you die. But it seems that even after you’re dead, the bullshit may not stop. Cemeteries may offer their permanent residents the opportunity to Rest in Peace, but for the living who visit them, there are rules and regulations. And according to several cemetery operators with whom I spoke, these rules and regulations are becoming increasingly stringent (a word the dictionary defines as strict, precise, and exacting) as more and more people push the limit on how they choose to honor their loved ones after they have been laid to rest. Even though Louise’s situation seemed to have stabilized, I called Mount Hope Cemetery and asked for the manager. Lo and behold, they seemed to be undergoing yet another transition in that department. After being bounced around a bit, I was put in touch with Kim Mathis, district manager of community parks for the city of San Diego. She said she was unfamiliar with Louise Wyatt’s forty-year ordeal, but that all flowers, artificial as well as real, are welcome at Mount Hope — provided they are put in a regulation vase, which is available for purchase, and which are removed once a week on mow date. “If our staff has to remove them, they are thrown away,” Mathis said.

Mount Hope’s FAQ states “the placing of personal effects, including, without limitation, photos, balloons, stuffed animals, lights, greeting cards, art objects, religious articles, emblems, memorabilia and the like, are not permitted and will be removed by the Cemetery Association.”

Mount Hope is the largest public cemetery in San Diego County, covering 110 acres in southeast San Diego. Mathis didn’t know how many people are buried at Mount Hope, but according to BillionGraves.com, there are currently more than 45,000 “headstone records” there. (The site claims to be “the world’s largest resource for searchable GPS cemetery data.”)

“When someone comes up to do their contract at Mount Hope, they are provided with this whole handbook of rules and regulations,” Mathis said. Aside from flowers, visitors are not permitted to decorate graves “with anything that might be dangerous, such as candles with glass around them, or artificial lights, because they stick in the ground with spikes and somebody could fall on them. And no fencing around graves, because people could trip on them.” As she mentioned, all decorations, flowers and everything else, must be removed before each weekly mow date, since the mowers need a clear, unobstructed path when mowing across the flat monument markers. “That’s the responsibility of the grave owner, but we’re removing stuff all the time,” she said.

I looked at Mount Hope Cemetery’s FAQ, and it seemed the cemetery’s official flower policy wasn’t quite as liberal as Mathis said. According to the “permissible decorations” section, “Artificial flowers are [only] permitted from November 1 through March 31.” But visitors are allowed to plant flowers around the memorials, as long as they get permission from the cemetery office. “Recommended are annuals, such as geranium, impatiens, marigold, etc. Rose plants are prohibited. Planting of azaleas or other shrubs is permitted only on lots having not less than two feet on either side of the memorial, with the exception of lots with pre-poured foundations, where no shrubs are permitted. Care must be provided through Mount Hope Cemetery in order to plant…. Should the planting become overgrown, unsightly, or encroach on adjacent lots or graves, the Association shall have the right to remove such planting and put the lot or grave in order at the expense of the lot owner.” As for other decorations, “the placing of personal effects, including, without limitation, photos, balloons, stuffed animals, lights, greeting cards, art objects, religious articles, emblems, memorabilia and the like, are not permitted and will be removed by the Cemetery Association.” Seasonal decorations, however, are OK, and will remain for four weeks “before removal begins.” (Mount Hope does encourage families to visit their loved ones, but has a separate set of rules in place for gatherings: “No parties, picnics, food, glass, or alcohol. No grilling or fire of any kind. No smoking. No canopies/large umbrellas.”)

El Camino Memorial Park in Sorrento Valley allows for artificial flowers, but only if they fit into an installed vase and are eight to ten inches high. “We’re probably one of the strictest parks” says Location Manager Douglas Trobaugh.

Adjacent to Mount Hope Cemetery is Greenwood Memorial Park, a privately owned cemetery with more than 95,000 headstone records, according to BillionGraves.com. Greenwood was opened in 1907 and currently covers 125 acres of land. Repeated attempts to reach general manager Corretta Farmer were unsuccessful; however, according to the rules and regulations PDF available on Greenwood’s website, both live and artificial flowers are permissible, as long as they are less than 18 inches in height and placed in “the permanent vase purchased from the cemetery, or one of equivalent quality and construction.”

Place

Greenwood Memorial Park

4300 Imperial Avenue, San Diego

Also allowed are potted plants and “decorative items like solar lights, flags, windmills, etc.” — again, as long as they don’t exceed 18 inches in height. Not permitted: “Adhesives, wires or strings to secure items to the ground or face of memorials, niche or crypt fronts. No writing, carving or sculpting of any design on the ground, memorial, niche or crypt fronts. No flowers, plants or trees allowed to be permanently placed (planted) in the grave space. No erected items like crosses, stars, statues, frames, etc. No glass/breakable items – all glass items will be removed for safety reasons. No candles.” The only exceptions are in December, when visitors are allowed to bring live or artificial trees (no more than four feet high) or wreaths (no more than three feet).

Place

Holy Cross Cemetery & Mausoleum

4470 Hilltop Drive, San Diego

Holy Cross Cemetery is another of the county’s biggest cemeteries. Located in Southeast San Diego, the 40-acre site is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, which established the cemetery in 1919. Since then, according to BillionGraves.com, more than 52,000 people have been interred there. Mario DeBlasio, who oversees the ground crew, said only fresh flowers are permitted in the section of the cemetery that features flat markers. “We have an area which has upright monuments, and there, families can place whatever they want,” he said. “But the reason we don’t allow artificial items on the flat areas is the lawn mower has to cut the grass every couple of weeks, and we want to be sure there’s nothing that can interfere with the mower blades. Fresh-cut flowers are easy to take care of.” Seasonal decorations are permitted two weeks prior, and two weeks after, Memorial Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, and Christmas. The rest of the time, DeBlasio says, the fresh-flowers-only rule is strictly enforced, “with no exceptions. Once you make an exception for one person, then you have to make exceptions for other people.”

Place

El Camino Memorial Park

5600 Carroll Canyon Road, San Diego

Douglas Trobaugh is the Location Manager for another of San Diego County’s bigger cemeteries, the privately owned El Camino Memorial Park in Sorrento Valley. Founded in 1960, El Camino covers 220 acre of the land and is he final resting ground for such San Diego luminaries as Jonas Salk, Ray and Joan Kroc, singer Patti Page, and actor Milburn Stone (Doc on Gunsmoke). BillionGraves.com says there are more than 52,000 “headstone records” at El Camino. Here, the cemetery flower policy does allow for artificial flowers, but only if they fit into an installed vase and are eight to ten inches high. Potted plants, too, are permitted, up to a six-inch pot. “We’re probably one of the strictest parks, because we don’t allow balloons, windmills or wind chimes,” Trobaugh says. “A couple of weeks ago, somebody put up a wooden cross that was four feet high – we just don’t allow that.” And twice a year, Trobaugh says, the entire cemetery is swept clean and all decorations are thrown away, although families are encouraged to remove any artificial flowers or potted plants beforehand, and bring them back when the park’s clean-up crews are done.

Despite this strict policy, El Camino does allow gatherings. “If you come through here on a Saturday, all the visitors are doing their own kind of traditions,” Trobaugh says. “I’ve seen where I come in and they have big setups, popups, and they might bring bags of McDonald’s and they’re here for hours. Sometimes we get calls — the little old lady down the row from them thinks it’s offensive — but they have the right to visit the way they need to.”

Place

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia

4050 Mission Avenue, Oceanside

Up in Oceanside, the Mission San Luis Rey cemetery is one of the county’s smaller burial grounds, with just over 6000 headstone records, according to BillionGraves.com. Director Danielle Napoli responded to an interview request with an email: “Unfortunately, we are very busy with funerals and assisting grieving families, which is our priority…. Have a blessed day.” Still, she sent along a copy of the cemetery’s rules and regulations, which say both fresh-cut and artificial flowers are allowed as long as they are placed in the vases installed at each gravesite. Items not allowed at Mission San Luis Rey: ”Potted plants or other floral containers, candles, glass jars or vases, tin cans, flags (except for the American flag), statues, figurines, balloons, windsocks, shells, rocks, notes, solar lights, toys, pinwheels and any similar items. Command hooks or strips may not be attached to markers….

These rules and regulations apply to all sections of the cemetery. If these items are placed, they will be removed and disposed of.” There are, however, exceptions. “The American flag is welcome,” and the potted plant ban does not apply to Easter lilies during Lent or poinsettias during the Christmas season. “However,” notes the guide, “we cannot guarantee that they will be placed back on the same marker after mowing.” Wind chimes are permitted, but “space is limited. All wind chimes must be approved for aesthetics, size, and appropriateness before they are placed in the cemetery. Any wind chime placed on cemetery grounds without approval will be removed and discarded.”

  • * * *

Of all the cemetery folk with whom I spoke, none was more helpful than Scott Prine, general manager of Singing Hills Memorial Park in El Cajon. Having just opened in 1996, the thirty-five-acre cemetery is the county’s newest. Prine said about 6500 people are interred at Singing Hills, and notes that the privately owned cemetery has plenty of room to expand: the present memorial park is adjacent to a sixty-five-acre natural preserve, “and we own all that land, so some of that will be developed.”

Place

Singing Hills Memorial Park

2800 Dehesa Road, El Cajon

Prine filled me in on some other interesting details about cemeteries – specifically, their density. “A rule of thumb is 1200 caskets per acre of land,” he says. “California is the most regulated state, and the law requires you to have at least 18 inches of earth between a vault and the surface, so in the case of a first burial, it’s not really ‘six feet under,’ it’s more like four and a half, or five.” As for the number of bodies per grave site, Prine says most cemeteries limit it to two caskets, although he does note that “each cemetery is allowed to make its own rules.” Years ago, some cemeteries would bury up to ten caskets in a single gravesite, but due to the depth of the hole and resulting concerns about the safety of the grounds crew, that practice was abandoned. Now, if someone dies and the surviving spouse (or other family member) wants to be buried on the same site, then the initial hole is dug deep enough to accommodate an additional casket – or more, if cemetery rules permit.

Singing Hills is more liberal about decorative items than other cemeteries, Prine said, in keeping with the cemetery’s philosophy “that we receive everyone, no matter what your status in life was, no matter what you were or weren’t – and everyone has a right to honor their loved ones in their own unique way.”

Our conversation shifted back to decorations, beginning with flowers. All flowers are permitted, fresh as well as fake, as long as they are less than 18 inches in height. They also must be placed in a permanent vase purchased from the cemetery. “I would never tell families they can’t bring artificial flowers,” Prine said. “Silk flowers won’t stay there forever – we have a cleaning schedule — but they can come and remove them.” Singing Hills also permits potted plants, both live and artificial, as well as such decorative items as solar lights, flags, and windmills, as long as they adhere to the 18-inch height limit.

Not allowed, according to the rule sheet: “No adhesives, wires or strings to secure items to the ground or face of memorials, niche or crypt fronts. No writing, carving or sculpting of any design on the ground, memorial, niche or crypt fronts. No flowers, plants or trees allowed to be permanently placed (planted) in the grave space. No erected items like crosses, stars, statues, frames, etc. No glass/breakable items – all glass items will be removed for safety reasons. No candles or other incendiary devices. No fences, rocks or other items meant to mark the borders of a space. No bird feeders, frames or keepsakes are permitted in trees, only wind chimes are allowed.” The Singing Hills rule sheet further states that live flowers and plants “will be removed the first Thursday and Friday of each month or as they become wilted or unsightly. Artificial flowers and all decorations will be removed the first Thursday and Friday of each month.” For above-ground spaces – mausoleums, niches, and crypts – “live flowers and plants will be removed as they become wilted or unsightly. Artificial flowers and all decorations will be removed the first Thursday of January, April, July and October.”

Prine said the rules are designed with safety in mind. “That’s why you can’t have glass, which can break and hurt people, or wires and fences, which people can trip over,” he says. But the height rule is mostly due to county restrictions. “As part of the agreement we went through to develop the land for the cemetery,” Prine said, “we’re not allowed to have upright monuments. So families bringing six-foot crosses or things that mimic an upright monument are not allowed.” Even so, Singing Hills is more liberal about decorative items than other cemeteries, Prine said, in keeping with the cemetery’s philosophy “that we receive everyone, no matter what your status in life was, no matter what you were or weren’t – and everyone has a right to honor their loved ones in their own unique way.” Such a liberal policy on occasion leads to complaints. “Some families come in and say, ‘This is getting a little crazy; we just want a neat little cemetery with no decorations other than flowers.’ Others want pinwheels, lights, and tchotchkes – things that remind them of their loved ones. And I tell our families that not everyone is going to agree, but we have to learn how to respect each other.” Singing Hills also celebrates major holidays such as Memorial Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Day of the Dead, and Christmas with barbecues and raffles. “Not everyone wants to participate, but that’s their right,” Prine said.

From time to time, policies change, Prine said — and sometimes visitors have a hard time adjusting to these changes. “I managed Greenwood when we had a major change to our flower and decorations policy, and we got death threats. It was really just getting things more under control – people were putting up fences and bringing in rocks and building borders around graves, which got in the way of the mowers, and then we had some people bring in these huge two-foot-by-three-foot photos staked into the ground. We posted signs informing people of the new rules months in advance, but still we had quite a bit of opposition.”

Have their ever been altercations between families? “From time to time, yes,” Prine said. “We had one family, back at Greenwood, that came out to visit their loved one and some other family visiting the grave right next to it had set up a barbecue and chairs right on their space. Fortunately, as soon as they realized this, they packed it all up and moved it over a few feet and apologized.”

(See also: Underground with the celebrity dead)

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Cemeteries may offer their permanent residents the opportunity to Rest in Peace, but for the living who visit them, there are rules and regulations.
Cemeteries may offer their permanent residents the opportunity to Rest in Peace, but for the living who visit them, there are rules and regulations.

One day in late March, I got a call from Louise Wyatt. I had just interviewed her for a story on how genetic genealogy had enabled detectives to solve the murder of her daughter Michelle, forty years after the pretty young college student was found strangled to death in her Santee condominium. A few days after the interview, I had accompanied Louise to Mount Hope Cemetery. She has visited Michelle’s grave there every Sunday morning since October 1980, when her daughter was buried. Now, Louise wanted to know if I could help her with a vexing, on-again, off-again dispute with the cemetery over the flowers she brought to decorate Michelle’s grave.

Initially, she said, she would bring fresh flowers on her weekly visits. But after noticing that by the time she returned to the cemetery, the flowers she had brought the previous week had wilted and were falling apart, she switched to silk flowers from Michael’s: a colorful mix of daisies and roses. All was well and good until one Sunday morning a few months later, when Louise arrived at the grave and found her flowers gone. She contacted the cemetery office and was told that new management had come in. Silk flowers — or any other sort of artificial flowers — were no longer welcome. “I wrote letters,” she explained. “I sent all kinds of letters — personal, you know — to the manager. And they told me there are no exceptions: ‘No one will have silk flowers.’ I told them, ‘There will be one.’ And from that point on, they left the flowers alone — until one day, they started disappearing again.” Since then, she said, it’s been something of a roller-coaster, as she has dealt with a succession of managers. Her impassioned letters have received responses that ranged from defiant to sympathetic. But either way, the dynamic was liable to change once a new manager arrived.

Place

Mount Hope Cemetery

3751 Market Street, San Diego

When she called me in March, Louise had just had what she considered a particularly unnerving exchange with the latest managerial arrival. “He was very rude,” she said. “He told me if I bring those silk flowers again, they’re going to be gone. Well, that just set me off. I can’t buy Michelle a pretty little dress, or a new car, or anything like that. Bringing her flowers is all I can do. So that’s why I do it. And I told this guy, ‘Do not bother the flowers.’ And the next time my husband and I went, yep, her flowers were gone.”

I promised Louise I would look into the matter, but then I forgot about it until June. When I called her, she said everything was fine again. “I sent the manager a registered letter, telling him to leave my flowers alone. Then I went down there and talked to him. He was not a nice man. He told me, ‘You can call the city if you want.’ Then I said, ‘No, I’m not going to call the city. I’ll call the news media.’ And he didn’t like that. He just looked down real quick and didn’t say a darn word. So he didn’t like that at all. But so far, the flowers are there, and the cemetery is not bothering me. So I’ll wait and see what happens. I just don’t want them touching her flowers.”

  • * * *

Life’s a bitch, as the expression goes, and then you die. But it seems that even after you’re dead, the bullshit may not stop. Cemeteries may offer their permanent residents the opportunity to Rest in Peace, but for the living who visit them, there are rules and regulations. And according to several cemetery operators with whom I spoke, these rules and regulations are becoming increasingly stringent (a word the dictionary defines as strict, precise, and exacting) as more and more people push the limit on how they choose to honor their loved ones after they have been laid to rest. Even though Louise’s situation seemed to have stabilized, I called Mount Hope Cemetery and asked for the manager. Lo and behold, they seemed to be undergoing yet another transition in that department. After being bounced around a bit, I was put in touch with Kim Mathis, district manager of community parks for the city of San Diego. She said she was unfamiliar with Louise Wyatt’s forty-year ordeal, but that all flowers, artificial as well as real, are welcome at Mount Hope — provided they are put in a regulation vase, which is available for purchase, and which are removed once a week on mow date. “If our staff has to remove them, they are thrown away,” Mathis said.

Mount Hope’s FAQ states “the placing of personal effects, including, without limitation, photos, balloons, stuffed animals, lights, greeting cards, art objects, religious articles, emblems, memorabilia and the like, are not permitted and will be removed by the Cemetery Association.”

Mount Hope is the largest public cemetery in San Diego County, covering 110 acres in southeast San Diego. Mathis didn’t know how many people are buried at Mount Hope, but according to BillionGraves.com, there are currently more than 45,000 “headstone records” there. (The site claims to be “the world’s largest resource for searchable GPS cemetery data.”)

“When someone comes up to do their contract at Mount Hope, they are provided with this whole handbook of rules and regulations,” Mathis said. Aside from flowers, visitors are not permitted to decorate graves “with anything that might be dangerous, such as candles with glass around them, or artificial lights, because they stick in the ground with spikes and somebody could fall on them. And no fencing around graves, because people could trip on them.” As she mentioned, all decorations, flowers and everything else, must be removed before each weekly mow date, since the mowers need a clear, unobstructed path when mowing across the flat monument markers. “That’s the responsibility of the grave owner, but we’re removing stuff all the time,” she said.

I looked at Mount Hope Cemetery’s FAQ, and it seemed the cemetery’s official flower policy wasn’t quite as liberal as Mathis said. According to the “permissible decorations” section, “Artificial flowers are [only] permitted from November 1 through March 31.” But visitors are allowed to plant flowers around the memorials, as long as they get permission from the cemetery office. “Recommended are annuals, such as geranium, impatiens, marigold, etc. Rose plants are prohibited. Planting of azaleas or other shrubs is permitted only on lots having not less than two feet on either side of the memorial, with the exception of lots with pre-poured foundations, where no shrubs are permitted. Care must be provided through Mount Hope Cemetery in order to plant…. Should the planting become overgrown, unsightly, or encroach on adjacent lots or graves, the Association shall have the right to remove such planting and put the lot or grave in order at the expense of the lot owner.” As for other decorations, “the placing of personal effects, including, without limitation, photos, balloons, stuffed animals, lights, greeting cards, art objects, religious articles, emblems, memorabilia and the like, are not permitted and will be removed by the Cemetery Association.” Seasonal decorations, however, are OK, and will remain for four weeks “before removal begins.” (Mount Hope does encourage families to visit their loved ones, but has a separate set of rules in place for gatherings: “No parties, picnics, food, glass, or alcohol. No grilling or fire of any kind. No smoking. No canopies/large umbrellas.”)

El Camino Memorial Park in Sorrento Valley allows for artificial flowers, but only if they fit into an installed vase and are eight to ten inches high. “We’re probably one of the strictest parks” says Location Manager Douglas Trobaugh.

Adjacent to Mount Hope Cemetery is Greenwood Memorial Park, a privately owned cemetery with more than 95,000 headstone records, according to BillionGraves.com. Greenwood was opened in 1907 and currently covers 125 acres of land. Repeated attempts to reach general manager Corretta Farmer were unsuccessful; however, according to the rules and regulations PDF available on Greenwood’s website, both live and artificial flowers are permissible, as long as they are less than 18 inches in height and placed in “the permanent vase purchased from the cemetery, or one of equivalent quality and construction.”

Place

Greenwood Memorial Park

4300 Imperial Avenue, San Diego

Also allowed are potted plants and “decorative items like solar lights, flags, windmills, etc.” — again, as long as they don’t exceed 18 inches in height. Not permitted: “Adhesives, wires or strings to secure items to the ground or face of memorials, niche or crypt fronts. No writing, carving or sculpting of any design on the ground, memorial, niche or crypt fronts. No flowers, plants or trees allowed to be permanently placed (planted) in the grave space. No erected items like crosses, stars, statues, frames, etc. No glass/breakable items – all glass items will be removed for safety reasons. No candles.” The only exceptions are in December, when visitors are allowed to bring live or artificial trees (no more than four feet high) or wreaths (no more than three feet).

Place

Holy Cross Cemetery & Mausoleum

4470 Hilltop Drive, San Diego

Holy Cross Cemetery is another of the county’s biggest cemeteries. Located in Southeast San Diego, the 40-acre site is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, which established the cemetery in 1919. Since then, according to BillionGraves.com, more than 52,000 people have been interred there. Mario DeBlasio, who oversees the ground crew, said only fresh flowers are permitted in the section of the cemetery that features flat markers. “We have an area which has upright monuments, and there, families can place whatever they want,” he said. “But the reason we don’t allow artificial items on the flat areas is the lawn mower has to cut the grass every couple of weeks, and we want to be sure there’s nothing that can interfere with the mower blades. Fresh-cut flowers are easy to take care of.” Seasonal decorations are permitted two weeks prior, and two weeks after, Memorial Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, and Christmas. The rest of the time, DeBlasio says, the fresh-flowers-only rule is strictly enforced, “with no exceptions. Once you make an exception for one person, then you have to make exceptions for other people.”

Place

El Camino Memorial Park

5600 Carroll Canyon Road, San Diego

Douglas Trobaugh is the Location Manager for another of San Diego County’s bigger cemeteries, the privately owned El Camino Memorial Park in Sorrento Valley. Founded in 1960, El Camino covers 220 acre of the land and is he final resting ground for such San Diego luminaries as Jonas Salk, Ray and Joan Kroc, singer Patti Page, and actor Milburn Stone (Doc on Gunsmoke). BillionGraves.com says there are more than 52,000 “headstone records” at El Camino. Here, the cemetery flower policy does allow for artificial flowers, but only if they fit into an installed vase and are eight to ten inches high. Potted plants, too, are permitted, up to a six-inch pot. “We’re probably one of the strictest parks, because we don’t allow balloons, windmills or wind chimes,” Trobaugh says. “A couple of weeks ago, somebody put up a wooden cross that was four feet high – we just don’t allow that.” And twice a year, Trobaugh says, the entire cemetery is swept clean and all decorations are thrown away, although families are encouraged to remove any artificial flowers or potted plants beforehand, and bring them back when the park’s clean-up crews are done.

Despite this strict policy, El Camino does allow gatherings. “If you come through here on a Saturday, all the visitors are doing their own kind of traditions,” Trobaugh says. “I’ve seen where I come in and they have big setups, popups, and they might bring bags of McDonald’s and they’re here for hours. Sometimes we get calls — the little old lady down the row from them thinks it’s offensive — but they have the right to visit the way they need to.”

Place

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia

4050 Mission Avenue, Oceanside

Up in Oceanside, the Mission San Luis Rey cemetery is one of the county’s smaller burial grounds, with just over 6000 headstone records, according to BillionGraves.com. Director Danielle Napoli responded to an interview request with an email: “Unfortunately, we are very busy with funerals and assisting grieving families, which is our priority…. Have a blessed day.” Still, she sent along a copy of the cemetery’s rules and regulations, which say both fresh-cut and artificial flowers are allowed as long as they are placed in the vases installed at each gravesite. Items not allowed at Mission San Luis Rey: ”Potted plants or other floral containers, candles, glass jars or vases, tin cans, flags (except for the American flag), statues, figurines, balloons, windsocks, shells, rocks, notes, solar lights, toys, pinwheels and any similar items. Command hooks or strips may not be attached to markers….

These rules and regulations apply to all sections of the cemetery. If these items are placed, they will be removed and disposed of.” There are, however, exceptions. “The American flag is welcome,” and the potted plant ban does not apply to Easter lilies during Lent or poinsettias during the Christmas season. “However,” notes the guide, “we cannot guarantee that they will be placed back on the same marker after mowing.” Wind chimes are permitted, but “space is limited. All wind chimes must be approved for aesthetics, size, and appropriateness before they are placed in the cemetery. Any wind chime placed on cemetery grounds without approval will be removed and discarded.”

  • * * *

Of all the cemetery folk with whom I spoke, none was more helpful than Scott Prine, general manager of Singing Hills Memorial Park in El Cajon. Having just opened in 1996, the thirty-five-acre cemetery is the county’s newest. Prine said about 6500 people are interred at Singing Hills, and notes that the privately owned cemetery has plenty of room to expand: the present memorial park is adjacent to a sixty-five-acre natural preserve, “and we own all that land, so some of that will be developed.”

Place

Singing Hills Memorial Park

2800 Dehesa Road, El Cajon

Prine filled me in on some other interesting details about cemeteries – specifically, their density. “A rule of thumb is 1200 caskets per acre of land,” he says. “California is the most regulated state, and the law requires you to have at least 18 inches of earth between a vault and the surface, so in the case of a first burial, it’s not really ‘six feet under,’ it’s more like four and a half, or five.” As for the number of bodies per grave site, Prine says most cemeteries limit it to two caskets, although he does note that “each cemetery is allowed to make its own rules.” Years ago, some cemeteries would bury up to ten caskets in a single gravesite, but due to the depth of the hole and resulting concerns about the safety of the grounds crew, that practice was abandoned. Now, if someone dies and the surviving spouse (or other family member) wants to be buried on the same site, then the initial hole is dug deep enough to accommodate an additional casket – or more, if cemetery rules permit.

Singing Hills is more liberal about decorative items than other cemeteries, Prine said, in keeping with the cemetery’s philosophy “that we receive everyone, no matter what your status in life was, no matter what you were or weren’t – and everyone has a right to honor their loved ones in their own unique way.”

Our conversation shifted back to decorations, beginning with flowers. All flowers are permitted, fresh as well as fake, as long as they are less than 18 inches in height. They also must be placed in a permanent vase purchased from the cemetery. “I would never tell families they can’t bring artificial flowers,” Prine said. “Silk flowers won’t stay there forever – we have a cleaning schedule — but they can come and remove them.” Singing Hills also permits potted plants, both live and artificial, as well as such decorative items as solar lights, flags, and windmills, as long as they adhere to the 18-inch height limit.

Not allowed, according to the rule sheet: “No adhesives, wires or strings to secure items to the ground or face of memorials, niche or crypt fronts. No writing, carving or sculpting of any design on the ground, memorial, niche or crypt fronts. No flowers, plants or trees allowed to be permanently placed (planted) in the grave space. No erected items like crosses, stars, statues, frames, etc. No glass/breakable items – all glass items will be removed for safety reasons. No candles or other incendiary devices. No fences, rocks or other items meant to mark the borders of a space. No bird feeders, frames or keepsakes are permitted in trees, only wind chimes are allowed.” The Singing Hills rule sheet further states that live flowers and plants “will be removed the first Thursday and Friday of each month or as they become wilted or unsightly. Artificial flowers and all decorations will be removed the first Thursday and Friday of each month.” For above-ground spaces – mausoleums, niches, and crypts – “live flowers and plants will be removed as they become wilted or unsightly. Artificial flowers and all decorations will be removed the first Thursday of January, April, July and October.”

Prine said the rules are designed with safety in mind. “That’s why you can’t have glass, which can break and hurt people, or wires and fences, which people can trip over,” he says. But the height rule is mostly due to county restrictions. “As part of the agreement we went through to develop the land for the cemetery,” Prine said, “we’re not allowed to have upright monuments. So families bringing six-foot crosses or things that mimic an upright monument are not allowed.” Even so, Singing Hills is more liberal about decorative items than other cemeteries, Prine said, in keeping with the cemetery’s philosophy “that we receive everyone, no matter what your status in life was, no matter what you were or weren’t – and everyone has a right to honor their loved ones in their own unique way.” Such a liberal policy on occasion leads to complaints. “Some families come in and say, ‘This is getting a little crazy; we just want a neat little cemetery with no decorations other than flowers.’ Others want pinwheels, lights, and tchotchkes – things that remind them of their loved ones. And I tell our families that not everyone is going to agree, but we have to learn how to respect each other.” Singing Hills also celebrates major holidays such as Memorial Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Day of the Dead, and Christmas with barbecues and raffles. “Not everyone wants to participate, but that’s their right,” Prine said.

From time to time, policies change, Prine said — and sometimes visitors have a hard time adjusting to these changes. “I managed Greenwood when we had a major change to our flower and decorations policy, and we got death threats. It was really just getting things more under control – people were putting up fences and bringing in rocks and building borders around graves, which got in the way of the mowers, and then we had some people bring in these huge two-foot-by-three-foot photos staked into the ground. We posted signs informing people of the new rules months in advance, but still we had quite a bit of opposition.”

Have their ever been altercations between families? “From time to time, yes,” Prine said. “We had one family, back at Greenwood, that came out to visit their loved one and some other family visiting the grave right next to it had set up a barbecue and chairs right on their space. Fortunately, as soon as they realized this, they packed it all up and moved it over a few feet and apologized.”

(See also: Underground with the celebrity dead)

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