Like a zombie apocalypse movie, the Tulare Public Cemetery District (TPCD) just can’t seem to keep their bodies buried.
On March 8 the cemetery disinterred two bodies that had been buried in the wrong graves. This is the latest in a string of misplaced bodies at the cemetery in the last five years. Since 2016, eight disinterments have occurred, and according to a source close to the inner workings of the main office, there are more misplaced bodies at Tulare Cemetery than the public will ever know.
Groundskeeper Brian Viera says he dug both graves about a week apart at the direction of the cemetery manager Leonor Castaneda. Soon after, the 13-year veteran of the cemetery was fired.
Viera was not told why he was fired but believes he is being blamed for the grave mix-up and is considering suing to get his job back.
The dust-up caused by Viera’s firing, and the latest disinterment debacle, brought to the surface alleged mishandling of human remains found at the gravesite of a prominent Tulare family years ago. Those with information about the alleged remains are not willing to come forward because of the alleged hostile work environment at the cemetery.
Two bodies, two plots
It all started when two people died within days of each other whose plots are side by side.
The first decedent was Silvano Martinez, who passed away February 8. Groundskeeper Viera was told which plot to dig through the cemetery’s Google calendar system. As per cemetery protocol, Viera said he confirmed the plot’s location with the office before he dug the grave where Martinez’ body was ultimately laid to rest.
A week later, Viera was again instructed through the Google calendar system to dig a grave in the same section of the cemetery for a newly deceased individual. Viera quickly realized it was Martinez’ grave, and alerted Castaneda. Viera said that he informed Castaneda that Martinez was buried in the plot he had been instructed to dig and that it appeared Martinez was buried in the wrong grave.
Castaneda then instructed Viera to dig the grave next to it where Martinez should have been laid and put the newly deceased body there. Viera said that Castaneda told him that if the family doesn’t notice “she can fix the paperwork.”
When he protested, Viera said that Castaneda instructed him, “No, just do it. They don’t live in town.”
“From the bottom of my heart I am sorry Mr. Martinez was buried in the wrong grave, but it wasn’t my mix-up. It was the office’s fault,” said Viera.
Double the pain of being buried twice
Martinez’ family confirmed the grave mix-up in a story aired on the Spanish-language television station Univision. The family contacted Univision to attend the disinterment with the hope that no other family would have to go through what their family did.
Maricela Martinez said in an interview with Univision that the cemetery called her Friday afternoon, March 5, and informed them that her grandfather would be disinterred Monday morning. Their family, who has experienced a series of setbacks since Silvano Martinez’ death, had no say in the decision. According to Maricela Martinez, the body was going to be disinterred with or without their permission because the cemetery had buried him in the wrong grave.
According to Univision, the cemetery offered the family who owned the plot where Martinez was buried their choice of any other plot. At first the family agreed, but then changed their mind and told the cemetery they wanted their loved one buried in the plot they originally bought.
It’s not known if the Martinez family would have ever been advised that their loved one was buried in the wrong grave had the other family taken the cemetery up on its offer. Castaneda could not comment on any issues pertaining to the cemetery, directing all questions to Board Chair Xavier Avila.
The other family involved in the double disinterment has not been publicly identified.
On the morning of March 8, the one-month anniversary of Silvano Martinez’ death, both bodies were disinterred and put into the correct graves. Despite their hardship, the Martinez family attended the disinterment, laid flowers, and said prayers over Silvano Martinez’ newly dug grave.
“Our family suffered double the grief having to bury our grandfather twice,” said Maricela Martinez. “No one deserves that.”
Special meeting called
A special cemetery meeting was immediately called the next day, Tuesday, March 9, after the Martinez family allegedly requested that the cemetery refund the cost of their plot. The closed session agenda stated that the meeting concerned anticipated litigation for two cases, presumably meaning the two families involved in the disinterment.
Viera showed up at the special meeting and requested that he be able to address the trustees privately during closed session to “give his side of the story.” The trustees agreed.
Viera said that when he asked Castaneda why he was being fired she would not tell him. During closed session, Viera said that Trustee Steve Presant said the cemetery did not have to give him a reason because he was an at-will employee.
Board Chair Avila said there was nothing to report out of the closed session and that he could not comment because of possible litigation. Avila did say that at the TPCD regular meeting on March 25 they would be discussing the double disinterment and strategies to ensure that this does not happen again.