ADVERTISEMENT

Families lament loss of keepsakes after cemetery cleanup

November 14, 2021 GMT

LOVELAND, Colo. (AP) — Farrell Brown has been a regular visitor to the Loveland Burial Park since 1995, when her 18-year-old daughter, Amy, died of a brain aneurysm.

After Amy’s unexpected death, Brown started taking keepsakes to her daughter’s grave, turning it into a space of comfort and reflection for those close to Amy, including Amy’s young daughter, Kilayne.

Brown cast her granddaughter’s handprints in plaster and placed them on Amy’s grave when Kilayne was about one year old. When Brown’s mother was buried nearby, Amy’s aunt, Kelli Couch, began collecting pennies that corresponded with the birth years of family members, keeping them in a container shaped like an angel next to her mom’s headstone.

“I always felt comfort going into that graveyard, because there were so many precious things that people looked after,” Brown said. “It never looked gaudy. It was a comfort to know there were so many loved ones that people cared about.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Some items, like the handprints, were there from 1995 until October of this year.

On the first of November, Couch visited the cemetery and was shocked to find their decades’ worth of memories were gone.

“I went in there and just went, ‘Oh my goodness,’ because everything on the graves was gone,” Couch said. “It felt like a slug in your stomach. I couldn’t believe it.”

When they contacted the city-run cemetery, the family learned the items had been collected during the city’s seasonal cleanup. They were told by cemetery staff that there was nothing they could do to recover the items because they had already been thrown away.

“I said, ‘God have mercy on your soul, that is sacred ground,’” Brown said. “My daughter’s been there for 26 years, and there has never been anything taken off her grave. Now, I’m scared to take anything back out there.”

“This is my mom’s home, and this is where we come visit her. And it was like someone just walked into her house and stole everything out of it,” Couch said.

The fall cleanup of the Loveland Burial Park has left Brown’s family and others upset after they say workers went beyond the scope of past cleanups, discarding without notice keepsakes and tributes that had long decorated gravesites.

While city parks manager Dan Willadsen said the de facto policy during cleanups is to leave items on graves at “well-kept” spaces, so long as those items aren’t broken or falling apart, Farrell and others insist the gravesites of their loved ones were carefully maintained.

Willadsen acknowledged that the cleanup, which was handled by a group of city workers new to the job, had in some cases gone too far.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I believe we were taking things we shouldn’t have taken, and I will take the blame for that myself,” he said. “We’ve frankly had people come up to us, and thank us, and say they hadn’t seen a major cleanup like this in years. But I think there’s a difference between a major cleanup, and a cleanup that’s taking people’s personal effects.”

He said he personally spoke with several people who lost items in the cleanup, and that other cemetery staffers had likely been approached by more.

Loveland Burial Park typically performs its seasonal cleanup in April and October, after giving families notice a month ahead of time to remove artificial flowers and decorations from flat markers as well as worn out and out-of-season decorations from upright gravestones.

Information about the cleanup was posted ahead of time in the Reporter-Herald and on social media, though families said they either weren’t aware of the cleanup or weren’t aware of the scope this time around.

Debby Nichols got an unpleasant shock last month when she found items missing from her parents’ graves. Seen from U.S. 287, the graves of Glen and May Hodges have been a waypoint for their family since Glen was laid to rest at the Loveland Burial Park in 1999 and May was buried in 2015.

“That’s been like our beacon,” Nichols said. “You drove up there, and you looked for the shepherd’s hook, and there was mom and dad.”

Nichols’ daughter, Meredith Nichols-Diller, remembered when she was younger and, driving past, would point out to friends the shepherd’s hook planted next to the graves that the family had painted red, Glen and May’s favorite color, and decorated with garlands of seasonal flowers and leaves.

“It would just catch your eye, and it would always give me good feelings,” Nichols-Diller said.

The solid steel hook stood as a visual reminder of Nichols’ parents and Nichols-Diller’s grandparents in the heart of their hometown until October of this year.

“It’s all really disheartening,” Nichols said. “I remember when my mom and dad stood there, and they picked that plot. Now, I’m wondering, do I even really want to be buried there?”

Another person, Lisa Rosenhagen, said a statuette of the Virgin Mary that was more than a century old had been removed from her mother’s gravesite along with solar lights and small trinkets.

The statuette stood in Rosenhagen’s grandmother’s garden before it was in her mother’s house. When Rosenhagen contacted the cemetery about the statuette, they told her about the cleanup and said the head had fallen off.

“It was made of concrete, so it would almost be impossible for it to fall off, but that can be repaired,” she said. “I drive by the cemetery daily because I live in Loveland, and I’ve never seen it damaged.”

“I was really upset that they left it just at the discretion of the cleanup crew to just do what they wanted. Some things were left on some graves, and other things weren’t, and it made me pretty angry,” she added.

Willadsen said the staffing for the Parks & Recreation Department had been cut during the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to employees from different areas of the department being shuffled into cemetery roles. Those people may have been unfamiliar with how past cleanups were handled and how cleanups in practice differ from the letter of city rules.

“The new team likely didn’t know how the old team did things,” Willadsen said. “Basically, without a lot of historical knowledge of operation of the cemetery, they were reading through the rules and regulations to figure out what was their job? What were they supposed to do?”

In response to this year’s controversy, Willadsen said the department will change how it notifies the loved ones of people buried at the Loveland Burial Park of cleanups, placing yard signs throughout the cemetery shortly before the cleanup happens, so people who visit regularly know to remove items ahead of time.

He did say that items placed on a gravestone or marker should not pose a problem, unless they are, for example, fake flowers that have fallen apart. But if items do need to be removed as part of a cleanup, they will be stored for families to pick up later.

“I think that line got blurred a little bit in terms of things on the headstone that weren’t in the way,” Willadsen said. “We’re trying to put these things in place so that, generally speaking, what happened here doesn’t happen again.”

And he invited members of the public who have been adversely impacted by the cleanup to call him at 970-962-2729.

Brown says she and others are considering bringing up the problem at an upcoming city council meeting, to let more people know about what happened and ensure no more tributes at gravesites are lost.

“As a mother, it’s like you still have a protective feeling over them, just like if they were alive,” she said. “They didn’t have the right to do that.”