On March 27th the family of Jessica Martin arrived at the Tulare Public Cemetery to say their final goodbyes.
What they got instead were orders to stay in their cars and watched in horror as Office Manager Leonor Castaneda and four groundskeepers almost dropped the young woman’s casket.
No policy exists at the Tulare Public Cemetery District (TPCD) defining who is permitted to serve as pallbearers, but for reasons unexplained Castaneda forbade the Martin family to carry Jessica from the hearse to the gravesite.
When the Director of Miller’s Tulare Funeral Home and a family friend called a few days prior to the service to ask Castandeda to reconsider – what they received was a threat. Castaneda told the family friend that if one more person called concerning Jessica’s funeral she would lock the gates and the family would have to watch the service from outside the fence.
Jesse Martin, Jessica’s father, said it has been a very emotional time and his daughter’s death at only 30 years old was so unexpected. He said knowing how certain families have received preferential treatment at Tulare Cemetery and the way he was treated has only extended the family’s grief.
Martin is currently in consultation with his lawyer and is considering legal action. The following is a letter to TPCD and reproduced here with the family’s permission.
To the Tulare Cemetery Board:
My name is Jesse Martin, and this letter will serve as a complaint toward the handling of my daughter’s funeral on 3/27/20.
My daughter Jessica passed away on 3/18/20 and funeral arrangements were immediately made with Miller’s Funeral Home. On 3/19/20, I was told by the funeral director that due to the circumstances involving the Covid-19 pandemic we would have to stay in our cars the day of the funeral. I asked her if she could intercede for us, in hopes that at least the pallbearers and immediate family would be allowed to escort the casket. She told us that she would try.
On Friday 3/20/20 I went to the North Cemetery to purchase the space. As we drove into the cemetery a funeral service was being performed and all of the mourners were out of their vehicles and allowed to accompany their loved one. I asked the cemetery personnel if I could purchase the space and I was directed to the downtown cemetery. I proceeded to the office where I purchased the space and there I was also informed of the new policy. I let them know that I just witnessed a funeral at the North Cemetery where all of the mourners were allowed by the casket with their loved one. I was informed that the new policy was going into effect on 3/23/20. I asked about being able to just have the immediate family get out of their cars if we had masks and gloves on. I was denied because according to the cemetery administrative staff this was the new policy and would be enforced from now on until further notice.
As any other grieving parent would I reached out to a board member in an attempt to see if there might just be a way to get permission for just the immediate family to get out of the cars or just the pallbearers. I was again denied for the safety of the cemetery staff. During this time another family member had contacted the cemetery office and spoke to Leonor Castaneda in hopes that some accommodations or compromise could be made. She was told by Ms. Castaneda that nobody could get out of their cars and that if another family member called regarding this issue she was going to make the family stay outside the cemetery and look through the fence while the funeral services went on.
Upon hearing this I became very upset; however, I instructed my family to stop calling. I did however have another daughter send an email to the board detailing this incident. I assumed this issue was going to be brought up at the next board meeting. However all she received was a generic email with no location of where the next board meeting would be held and no board members reached out to investigate the issue.
During my daughter’s funeral we all stayed in our cars following this insensitive policy. I say insensitive because how easy could it have been for cemetery staff to keep a distance and tell us where to escort the casket and then for us to get in our cars and allow cemetery staff to lower the casket.
Instead there were only five people (including the priest) moving my daughter’s casket, instead of the six which are required. My family and I were horrified watching as they almost dropped the casket. With all of the sorrow that we were feeling at that moment we continued to stay in our cars abiding by the new policy.
I was later informed and sent a video of a funeral ceremony that took place 10 days after our daughter’s where you can clearly see the family of the deceased being allowed to get out of their cars and assist in the escorting of the casket. It can also be seen that other people can get out of their cars and stand outside their cars watching the ceremony.
This really infuriated me because I not only was not allowed to give my daughter a proper burial and goodbye, but a staff member also threatened to close the PUBLIC cemetery to my family and me. I believe I was improperly treated and robbed of the opportunity to give my daughter a proper burial and start the grievance process. I hope that none of you have ever been through a situation like losing a son/daughter. I can tell you that a part of you dies with them.
Our experience with the Tulare Public Cemetery was deplorable.
Additionally, on 4/29/2020, I was informed by Leonor Castaneda, that the decision to have my family wait in our cars the day of the funeral was made by the funeral director (of Miller’s Chapel). Of course we know this to be false due to our being with the director while she continuously called for updates regarding the policy and asking if accommodations could be made. I was there when the funeral director asked if just the pallbearers wearing face masks and gloves could escort the casket and was denied. I was there when she asked the cemetery staff if we could help with carrying the casket and again she was told “no.” (I have a recording of the 04/29/20 conversation.)
If people in management positions can lie so blatantly and not be held accountable something is wrong. This is why I am seeking a written apology; as well, I would like information on how to get on the cemetery board because I do not want this to happen to any other family no matter who they are or who they know.
On 4/29/2020 I was also told by Leonor Castandeda that the cemetery is not funded by taxpayers and instead funded by what is collected from the sales of the spaces. Well, as someone who paid the same cemetery fees as everyone else who buried their loved ones I would expect to be treated with the same respect and dignity. Respect and dignity should be given in all cases, especially with the sensitive nature of the business that is being conducted, especially if your only source of income depends on it. I would rather not seek legal action, however if this is not addressed, I will have no other choice.
Thank you for your time and I regret having to write this grievance, however I feel I owe it to my daughter to stand up for her.