Grave decoration: what’s reasonable?

Dear FCA,

In January 2007, my stepson passed away. The family has gone to the cemetery weekly since then, decorating and cleaning the marker area as well as trimming the grass surrounding the marker with no opposition from the cemetery owners or the management.

The cemetery now has a new manager who has ripped out all decorations and posted a sign stating that there are “updated” cemetery regulations. When approached he stated that these have always been the rules and he is just enforcing them. However his sign clearly states “updated rules” and not one consumer of the cemetery has ever been given these rules upon purchase of the graves. (we have several loved ones in the cemetery)

Furthermore, the family had specifically asked about decorations when choosing a burial site and was assured that decorations would be acceptable.

We have approached him and tried to make an agreement and or compromise but he will hear nothing of the sort. He even stated to me in one conversation that I can seek legal counsel all I want but “we are a private cemetery and there is nothing you can do”.

Is this true? Is there really nothing we can do to memorialize our lost loved ones at the sites their bodies lay?

Please let me know if there is anyone we can contact in order to help us and others who are also being prevented from the mental therapy that spending the time decorating and memorializing provides.

Dear Jen [not her real name],

I’m sorry to hear about this; it’s a not uncommon complaint from families with relatives buried in certain cemeteries.

It certainly sounds as if the cemetery manager has been rude and unnecessarily hostile. Maintaining regulations on acceptable decorations on graves is reasonable and standard practice, but enforcing them inconsistently is not. The cemetery owes all its customers a copy of the written rules and regulations so everyone knows what to expect. That would be the first thing I would ask for.

Whether these rules have always existed, or whether the manager has created some new ones, I can’t say. In addition, there is little – probably nothing – you or any other family can do to change the rules the cemetery sets. Again, I’m not excusing rude or inconsistent behavior, but you need to know you’re not going to win a battle about grave decoration rules. The cemetery is within its rights to set whatever rules it likes.

You didn’t tell me what decorations you’ve been putting up, so I can’t comment on those. In general, cemeteries have rules against certain kinds (or excessive amounts of) decorations. Typically:

1. Pinwheels, large flags, and banners

2. Glass ornaments (including candles in jars)

3. Stuffed animals

4. Decorations/ornaments hung on metal stakes stuck into the grave

5. Decorative fencing around the grave

These prohibitions are generally reasonable. Such items can get in the way of, or get sucked up in, mowing equipment, potentially hurting the people doing the landscaping. The only alternative for the staff is to clear out the decorations beforehand. Not only is this time-consuming, and not something they’re obligated to do, but it provokes families who accuse them of not putting things back “just so.” They really can’t win, and I can’t blame them for setting reasonable rules to try to avoid problems.

In addition, one person’s sentimental decorations are another person’s tasteless display. Cemeteries don’t want to receive complaints from other families who don’t like the sight of ad-hoc decorations (and yes, cemeteries do sometimes get these complaints). It’s all subjective, of course, but I can understand why the cemetery doesn’t want to encourage this kind of unhappiness and conflict.

You asked, “Is there really nothing we can do to memorialize our lost loved ones at the sites their bodies lay?” I have to point out that the headstone *is* the memorialization – that’s the entire point of the headstone. Cemeteries aren’t obligated to allow families to go above and beyond the installation of a stone of their choice by embellishing it or the grave it sits on.

I hope you wouldn’t feel unable to meaningfully contemplate your relatives if you’re not able to decorate their graves. There are several creative options that come to mind:

1. Leaving a note, or a picture, on the headstone (if the cemetery objected to this, that would seem unreasonable to me).

2. Writing letters to the dead when the mood strikes you, and keeping them in a scrapbook to reflect on or add to later.

3. Holding a memorial party in the person’s honor on his birthday, and inviting friends and family to bring a dish to pass along with their fond memories.

I’m sure you can think of more.

Best wishes to you,

Josh Slocum
Exec. Director

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