Anyone who has suffered the pain of losing a loved one during the corona virus has also had to go through the pain of not being able to have a traditional funeral or graveside service.
To cope, many families have postponed the funeral. But bodies can’t wait until the country decides to open up to be buried.
Funerals are considered a super spreader of the virus. It was at a funeral in Tulare in mid-March that spread the virus throughout the community and resulted in infecting Bishop Ron Abbott, who ultimately succumbed to the disease.
In response, all Tulare County cemetery districts have put in place strict new policies to be followed during graveside services.
The controversy swirling around the Tulare Public Cemetery District (TPCD) is that prominent families receive preferential treatment, while other lesser known families have to follow the rules.
Two TPCD board members and the cemetery staff insist every family is treated the same.
Families who have had to sit in their cars listening to the service broadcast over a speaker beg to differ.
The truth is somewhere in the middle.
New restrictions are clear as mud
Governor Gavin Newsom’s Stay-at-Home order issued March 19 prohibits any public gathering over 10 people but doesn’t specifically address graveside burials.
The Center for Disease Control stepped in to give more guidance, stating that no chairs or awning be set up for graveside services to discourage people from gathering around the grave. They also recommend that only 10 people, including family, attend the burial and practice social distancing. Whether those 10 people are supposed to stay in their car is not clear.
In response, TPCD Office Manager Leonor Castaneda sent the following “NOTICE TO THE PUBLIC” to all the local mortuaries.
“In response to the respiratory illness caused by Coronavirus (COVID – 19), we would like to assure the public that we are following recommended guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention and local health authorities…… As of March 23, 2020 Tulare Public Cemetery District will only be allowing direct internments (sic) until further notice.”
No other guidance is offered pertaining to graveside services.
In an email asking what Castaneda meant by “direct internment” she said, “That means that we will only allow the hearse to come in and drop off the casket and between the funeral attendants and cemetery staff they take out the casket and set it on the lowering devise (sic), then we bury.”
Salser and Dillard said that “every cemetery sets their own rules” and confirmed that they received TPCD new policy weeks ago. They, along with Peers-Lorentzan Funeral Services, and Millers Memorial Chapel, enforce the concept “direct internments” differently.
Salser and Dillard said that the TPCD notice meant they were no longer holding burial services and did not elaborate.
Millers Memorial Chapel interprets it to mean that family and friends have to remain in their cars but they are allowed to roll down their windows. Only the priest or minister is allowed at the grave once the service begins. To facilitate hearing the service, Millers brings a sound system and a speaker so that everyone can hear without having to get out of their cars.
The reality on the ground
“She was appalled by all the people who got out of their cars. My mom isn’t rule breaker so she stayed in her car. I think people didn’t know or didn’t care.” This, according to a statement made about Manuel Faria’s graveside service on April 23.
According to witnesses and pictures, approximately 100 people attended Faria’s service, some staying in their cars and some not. Witnesses said many people stood by the grave or close by on the grass during the service, hugging and shaking hands.
Conversely, during a funeral of a less prominent family a few weeks prior, family and friends were banned from the graveside. In fact, the priest would not start the service until everyone was in their cars.
A friend of the deceased wrote on facebook that the treatment was a double standard. “Isn’t there a policy in place during this Covid? If so, this is wrong that it wasn’t enforced for everyone! It’s stupid that family’s can’t go to graveside anyway up to 10 people and social distance…..But this funeral was on a Thursday so staff was present. This is unacceptable. What entity oversees the board and cemetery?
The friend of the deceased queried why Millers, who handled both services, didn’t use its speaker system to tell attendees of the Faria burial to return to their cars before starting the service.
One of those family members who was prevented from getting out of their car went to the district office to complain, armed with photos of the Faria funeral.
As a result, TPCD board members Xavier Avila and Steve Presant, along with Castaneda and grounds keeper David Faria (no relation to decedent) met at the district office. Avila said when he saw the pictures of the service he was definitely concerned. He said from the pictures it looked like a lot of people had gathered around the grave and on the grass which was clearly against the rules.
“Should they have stayed further away? Yes,” said Avila. But after his investigation he said it was false that 100 people were next to the grave or on the grass during the service.
Studying the photographs, Avila measured between the attendees and Faria’s grave using as a reference the grave stones. He concluded that the attendees were about 60 feet away from the grave. He also said Faria’s plot is next to the road so the picture makes it look like a large group was on the grass next to the graveside when really they were by their cars.
Avila said when you blow up the picture its clear there are a few more than 10 people standing around the grave.
“The only difference with the Faria’s service was that there were a few extra people,” he said.
Presant said the criticism of how Castaneda handled the service was “a distortion of the truth.” Presant said that in the photo he only saw the pall bearers and faith leader standing by the grave. He added that Castaneda attends every service, even at the North Cemetery, and that she makes sure everyone follows the rules.
When asked, “Does TPCD give favoritism to prominent families?”
Avila said, “Absolutely not.”
Is there a written burial policy? No there isn’t
According to Cindy Summers at the Visalia Cemetery, during normal times, it does not have a written burial policy and the mortuaries have never asked for one. She said that the cemeteries are so old and that the mortuaries have been around so long that everyone knows the policies. In addition, there are few variances.
This was confirmed by Castaneda, who said by email, “Tulare Public Cemetery does not have a burial policy. Tulare Public Cemetery has implemented procedures regarding burials due to the coronavirus (COVID-19).”
TPCD board member Alberto Aguilar responded to Castaneda’s email, “I disagree with your assertion that the cemetery does not have a burial policy due to the fact that for over one hundred years the employees of the cemetery have prepared each grave site with a portable awning, lawn chairs, and other necessary accommodations for burial services at the cemetery.”
Presant said that during his two years on the board he has never seen a burial policy.
In terms of the new policy regarding COVID he said it was his understanding that only the faith leader can be at the graveside. Cars can be parked along the perimeter and attendees can sit or stand outside their cars.
Avila has a different understanding of the new policy. It was his belief that the law allows for up to 10 people by the grave. Other attendees could stand outside their cars if the grave was too far away from the road to hear.
Aguilar and fellow board member Vicki Gilson were not even aware of any new policies regarding COVID or that Castaneda had sent a public notice to all the mortuaries.
“I have been informed by members of the public that there is a new policy at the Tulare Public Cemetery District regarding burial services,” said Aguilar. “I would like a copy of this new burial policy and I want to know when was this new policy put into effect.”
Aguilar was informed that the new policy prohibited family members from getting out of their cars and added, “Leonor should be fired for being untruthful to the public regarding the policy she is enforcing at the cemetery that has never been brought before the board for discussion, deliberation and/or approval.”
“It is absurd to not allow family members of the deceased to get out of their vehicles during burial services. Specifically for family members who live together in the same household.”
A member of Caring Cause reacted to the Notice to the Public. “Wouldn’t you think the cemetery board would want more than a ‘loose procedure’ to ensure ALL families were treated equally? My opinion…IF they were (once again) doing their fiduciary duty they would have put in place a policy so there wouldn’t be any ‘gray’ area of what or what not would be allowed. What happened about social distancing and no gatherings of more than 10? Or doesn’t it apply to outdoor gatherings?”
Did the Faria family get preferential treatment?
Did the Faria family break the rules? No, because there are no agreed upon rules at TPCD to violate or enforce.
No one involved with the cemetery could say with authority what exactly the rules were in regard to burials–which is a bit ironic for a burial ground.
During the investigation into Tulare’s graveside services it was found that, the mortuaries, trustees, office staff, and even the Notice to the Public all said something different.
The Notice to the Public, the official document put out by the TPCD district office, should have been the final word on how to conduct a burial during COVID. But the document was ambiguous and woefully lacking which in hindsight does not seem accidental.
Clearly, some families were allowed to have large gatherings at the cemetery and get out of their cars for the service, while other families had to sit inside their cars and listen to their loved one’s service being broadcast over a speaker. Those family members not allowed to properly grieve were extremely upset at the disparity.
But the different treatment between families was not systematic.
The underlying issue at TPCD is not that certain families got preferential treatment while others didn’t. The issue is the large amount of distrust and lack of communication between the members of the board, between the constituents and the cemetery staff, and between the Trustees and the people they serve, making setting and enforcing policy almost impossible.
And that is not going away with the virus.