SELMA – When Selma resident Sherri Alcorn placed a cross and decorations on her son’s headstone at the Floral Memorial Cemetery, she was shocked to find they’d been kicked over, had gang initials scrawled into them and some of the items stolen.
She filed a police report, but is now hoping Selma Cemetery District will take steps to keep this from happening to others by installing lighting around the grounds.
“It hurts that we can’t decorate or fix his grave up nice without these thugs destroying it,” she said suspecting that gang members are responsible for the damage.
“I have a lot of family [buried in Easton] and we haven’t had any problems out there. [My son] was 28 and that’s the only place I have now for him and I can’t even decorate it. It’s the only place we have now to visit him so to come and see their things stolen, it’s heart-breaking.”
Alcorn and Selma business owner and resident Jesse Crouch spoke at the District’s most recent meeting Jan. 24 to share their concerns and offer some possible solutions.
“One of our barbers has a loved one here and this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this situation where someone’s gravesite has been vandalized or just had items taken,” Crouch said.
While it’s bothersome that items are being stolen, what matters more is the pain it causes the families, he said.
“It’s not necessarily about the money, but most of it’s your heart that’s getting ripped out again. To put time, money and effort into something you’re building for a loved one, I can only imagine. This is mostly about being a victim when you put something in with love and the sentiment behind it.”
Cemetery Board Chairman Bob Allen said they have looked into the cost of installing lighting but would need to get more current cost estimates as it’s been a few years since it was researched.
Crouch suggested lights be installed in phases, that funds be sought from other sources than just their District or that patrols take place from the local Volunteers in Policing program at the Selma Police Department to spread the cost out over time and deter vandalism.
“Have we reached out to the Health Board to see if they could help? There are a lot of people exercising here. There are other avenues than just the board bearing the brunt the whole thing.”
Cemetery General Manager Sandi Miller said cameras are already installed that film and record all around the grounds and have night-vision capability. Despite that, vandals and thieves have brazenly come onto the grounds to steal newly planted trees or ram into gates to steal grounds equipment.
“Selma’s not unique in the theft area. I sit on another cemetery district board so I know it’s not unique to Selma,” she said recalling one incident reported during Veterans Day.
“One family put a potted plant and flag [on a gravesite] in the A block. They realized they’d forgotten to put the flag and went back over there and the plant was already gone. It was during the day. I tell families that if they can put items in their yard or house, not to put it out there because thieves are going to take it.”
Installing traditional lighting would require the ground be dug up and that creates a dilemma, Miller said.
“The problem you have is that since the cemetery was started in 1932, to put lights in, who will you ask to dig up their loved ones to install the lights?”
Local police have been shown the video, Miller said, but since the items stolen have a low monetary value, even if the vandals were caught, the resulting punishment would be relatively minor.
Miller said families are also informed that they should not place irreplaceable items of high value on the gravesites in the contract they sign when a loved one is buried at one of the cemeteries they operate.
“The problem with putting valuable things on your grave is, you can put all the lights in the world out there and it’s not going to prevent someone who wants to take your 49ers jersey,” Allen said. “We all sign a form about being careful about what you put on [your loved one’s gravesite]. My parents are out here. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about it, but there’s going to be people who come out and take flowers.”
Crouch likened thieves and vandals to cockroaches that flee when a light is turned on and reiterated that lighting could at least help deter such activity.
“I think that when there is no light here, the vandalism has just increased. There’s more opportunity. If vandals are going to do something, they’re not going to do it in the light.”
Miller cautioned that there not only be the cost of installing the lights but an increase in the electric bill and to go forward would mean they’d need to increase the cost of burial services. She estimates their current electric bill is $600 per month.
Allen said that since lighting technology is constantly evolving, they would look at a number of lighting options and return with estimates at an upcoming Board meeting.
Cemetery Board member Alfonso Caro said they’d looked into different lighting ideas before.
“The issue that brought it up before was the vandalism. It was really, really bad. That was the deterrent that the [police department] said was the best thing. They said lighting would deter people from being in here. The best option, to us, was the solar since they’d be the brightest and wouldn’t interfere [with groundwork] as much.”
Caro and the board members said they understood the presenter’s concerns as they too have family members buried at the cemeteries.
“I’ve tried plenty of times and contemplated many options of what to do,” Caro said of theft from his son’s plot. “I’ve called the PD, made police reports and taken photos. I can never catch who does it. It’s heart breaking since that’s all we have left of our children.”
Allen agreed there seems to be less respect in society that has spilled over onto the cemeteries they manage, where previously such thefts were unheard of.
“It seems to be a new world where there’s no respect. It used to be churches were respected and nobody would vandalize a church, but it happens all the time anymore. Carving on things in the cemeteries, this was never a problem 25 years ago.”