Thieves take aim at cemeteries

May 24, 1998|By LISA GRAYBEAL

As Memorial Day approaches, Tri-State-area cemetery owners are bracing for what has become a morbid holiday tradition: stealing from the dead.

"It's about as low as you can go," said Bill Divelbliss, manager of Rose Hill Cemetery on South Potomac Street in Hagerstown.

Flower bouquets also have been known to disappear from one gravestone and reappear on another, according to cemetery officials.

From Christmas sprays and Memorial Day wreaths to vases of fresh flowers and potted annuals, it seems nothing is sacred to cemetery thieves.

"The nicer they are, the more there's a chance of them being taken by people," said Gail Anderson, general manager of Parklawns Memorial Gardens and Mausoleum in Chambersburg, Pa.


Anderson recalled a time when a woman had placed a potted plant at a gravestone on Easter morning only to return in the afternoon to discover it missing.

It's not a new problem and it's as prevalent in big-city cemeteries as it is in rural church plots, said Rick Freeman, owner of Cedar Lawn Memorial Park in Hagerstown. He also is a board member of the Maryland Free States Cemetery and Funeral Association.

It's also illegal in Maryland to remove items from a cemetery. The crime is punishable by a maximum $2,000 fine or three years in prison if the person is caught and convicted.

But that's the catch.

"It's something extremely difficult or almost impossible to control," said Earle Fender, owner of Rosedale Cemetery in Martinsburg, W.Va.

There's no way of knowing if a person seen carrying flowers through a cemetery is a thief or a family member, Divelbliss said.

Short of hiring 24-hour cemetery security and asking visitors to show identification, it's unrealistic for cemetery workers to keep an eye on acres of rolling burial grounds.

"You can't be every place all the time," Divelbliss said, who oversees 110 acres in which more than 43,000 people are buried.

But that's little consolation to family members and friends who go to the trouble of decorating a grave site to pay tribute to their deceased loved ones.

"In taking flowers, you're doing a terrible injustice to people psychologically. You're not just stealing from the dead," Fender said.

He said it was a rare occasion one day when he stopped a group of adults at his cemetery who were loading the trunk of their car with Christmas greens that had been arranged and placed on gravestones.

"They blatantly told me they were going to sell them," Fender said.

Most cemetery owners and managers offered little advice on ways to prevent thieves because identifying flower arrangements is difficult. In some cemeteries, securing arrangements with wire or other methods is prohibited because it poses a hazard to workers using mowing equipment.

"I don't recommend spending $40 or $50 on a nice silk arrangement unless you want to see it gone the next day," Fender said.

Any person who willfully destroys, mutilates, defaces, injures, or removes any tomb, monument, gravestone or other structure placed in any cemetery, or any building, wall, fence, railing, or other work, for the use, protection, or ornamentation of any cemetery in the state is guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be fined not more than $2,000, or imprisoned for not more than three years, or both.

Source: Maryland Digest of Criminal Laws

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