We all have our own thoughts about what is tasteful home decor and since our decisions about such are confined to our private places government doesn’t have the power to sway us. If we think lime green walls and Navy blue accessories is the look we’re after, no government agent is going to break down the door and dictate we paint our walls chalk-white.
Such is not the case, however, with cemetery lots. When we purchase a burial plot, whether it is from a private cemetery such as California’s Forest Lawn, or from a township or village government, we are merely buying the right to be buried there. We are not buying a piece of real estate that we have domain over. The rules and rights of ownership for burial sites are not the same as for residential real estate.
The Village of Greenfield’s recent decision to enforce its rules regarding use of the village’s cemetery has caused a storm of dissent and disagreement, much of it based on the very emotional nature of this issue. The core issues seem to be how one chooses to mourn their loved ones, what constitutes good taste, and the authority of the government to control what some see as private property.
The property issue is easy to figure out, the village is well within its rights to establish and enforce rules and regulations. Ohio Revised Code, Section 759.03, clearly gives local government control over the cemeteries they own and operate.
“The legislative authority of a municipal corporation owning a public burial ground or cemetery, whether within or without the municipal corporation, may pass and provide for the enforcement of ordinances necessary to carry into effect sections 759.02 to 759.48, inclusive, of the Revised Code, and may regulate such public burial grounds and cemeteries, the improvement thereof, the burial of the dead therein, define the tenure and conditions on which lots therein shall be held, and protect such burial grounds and cemeteries and all fixtures thereon.”
In my lay person reading of the law there leaves little doubt that the village is within its rights.
Much harder to deal with are the issues of mourning and good taste. Many people simply do not decorate grave sites while others appear to have no limits as to what they will adorn a grave site with. For many the proper adornment is a simple single rose bud on Memorial Day. To others it is banks of solar-powered “eternal flame” lights and plastic trolls dancing within a forest of iridescent whirligigs.
The village does bear some fault in having not enforced their rules from the beginning. But my guess is they turned a blind eye because for so long infractions were minor and they were attempting to accommodate, as best possible, the desire of the people. In recent years tombstone decoration has taken on a nature that I’ve never seen before. Traditionally grave sites were adorned with flowers on Memorial Day and frequently with sprays of real flowers or with planters. The graves of veterans have traditionally been honored with the placing of American flags by private groups such as the VFW or American Legion. This practice has continued and I’m told the placement of flags these days is done by local Boy Scout and church groups.
While I’m not going to challenge the tastefulness of many of today’s choices in grave decorations I am going to side with the village’s need to protect the safety of visitors along with its responsibility for keeping the grass mowed and the weeds trimmed. The highest cost of maintaining our cemetery must be the price of mowing equipment, the cost of fuel, and the higher cost of labor.
In many private and municipal cemeteries around the nation vertical tombstones are not even permitted. The only marker permitted is one that lies on the same plane as the surface of the ground. That way riding mowers can mow over graves and not have to mow around. Mowing and weeding around is the major problem. It is one thing to mow and trim around a tombstone but quite another to do so when a plot is covered with small statuary, whirligigs, toys, multiple wrought iron hanging basket holders, benches, urns, shrubbery, floral wreaths, solar lights arrays, and much more.
In the controversy village manager, Betty Bishop, has been made the villain and has caught much of the flak. There are those who think she has no right to her position simply because she is a resident of our arch rival, Hillsboro. The reality is that Bishop serves at the pleasure of an elected village council and is the chief executive officer of the community. This comes about as a result of the form of government Greenfield’s citizens decided on several years ago in the voting booths. She was hired, and rehired, by the elected representatives of the people, doing so in their apparent belief that she has performed well.
I know Bishop and have had many discussions with her concerning issues, programs, policies, planning, etc. and know her to be extremely hard-working, concerned for our community, well-informed, fair, and caring. It is my belief she is getting a raw deal by those who are just seeing her through the eyes of a single issue that is clouded by emotion.
The whole matter is made worse by the fact that so few residents take an interest in the community until an event like this occurs and their emotions become riled. One has to ask where are these same people when the call goes out to run for council, to serve on village committees, or advisory boards? Where are they when policy and ordinances are introduced into council and opportunities for public discussion are available? Where are they when council prepares to vote on issues that may directly influence the quality of their lives?
In the most recent village council race at least one seat had to be filled by committee after the election because no one stepped forward as a candidate of either party. At least one seat was filled by a candidate who ran unopposed. There are five seats on the village council and out of a population of several thousand adults there weren’t ten people willing to come forward and contest for those five positions. It is becoming increasingly difficult to merely find willing warm bodies, not to mention, intelligent warm bodies to do the people’s bidding.
I really don’t have a dog in this fight since the graves of my many relatives who are interned in the local cemetery are all within the stated rules. My family never spent much time visiting graves or decorating them. But, that doesn’t mean we didn’t honor our dead. We just chose to keep them in our thoughts and memories by telling their stories at family gatherings.
The concern I do have, though, is the failure of the government to give fair warning earlier, to possibly phase in enforcement, and to have a concise explanation of just why they were revisiting enforcement. The criticism I have of those protesting is the raw and venomous arrows they have slung at those responsible for enforcing the existing laws. Those are the people you have chosen, working within the system of government you have chosen, for little financial reward, and increasingly with less appreciation. I’m also bothered by people’s willingness to go to war solely based on emotion rather than knowledge of what laws do and do not permit or who is really at fault. We take great pride in our local schools but our actions often don’t reflect what those schools have tried to teach us.
*See that my grave is kept clean by Blind Lemon Jefferson, ca 1927