An angry and confused crowd gathered at the Brownfield Cemetery on Wednesday morning to confront members of the Terry County Cemetery Board regarding activities going on at the cemetery.
A long stream of comments on social media prompted area television and newspaper journalists to arrange a meeting time at the cemetery to hear grievances alleged by the community.
The Terry County Cemetery Board, which has been organized since the 1970s and is a volunteer organization responsible for the upkeep and management of the three cemeteries in or near Brownfield, had served notice starting in August of 2015 that changes were coming.
According to Board President Buzz Steele, the amount of decorations adorning many of the graves were out of line with the guidelines for the cemetery. These guidelines are a combination of state regulations, which must be followed, and some local regulations which had been adopted many years ago, but had not been properly enforced in many years.
Because of the lack of enforcement of these rules, Steele stated, “Maintenance has become a nightmare. There is so much stuff on so many of the graves that our guys simply cannot keep them mowed and clean.”
The Terry County Cemetery Board does not receive any funding from the city or from the county or from the state. The City Council and County Commissioners have nothing to do with the decisions made regarding the cemetery.
The Cemetery Board is not operating at a deficit at this time, however, they are in need of donations to continue to operate the cemetery. With limited income, maintenance does become an issue as far as finances are concerned.
The rules stated that anything permanent placed on the grave, aside from the headstone, must be placed at ground level in order for the mower to be able to pass over it. Many of the graves have curbing well over six inches tall, which renders it impossible for the mowers to adequately cover the area. To weed-eat each individual grave would cost many hours in man power, which translates to salaries which is money the cemetery association just simply does not have, according to Steele.
The board had been studying this problem for some time and in September of 2016, announced that town hall meetings would be held in order for the citizens to speak their minds and the board to explain their position on this issue.
The first town hall meeting was announced on the front page of the Brownfield News on September 7, 2016. This first town hall meeting registered around 50 attendees who asked questions and voiced concerns to the board regarding the resting places of their loved ones.
The last of the two town hall meetings was held on November 10, in the District Courtroom with another fairly large number in attendance. This meeting had many more questions and more concerns voiced as the deadline grew closer for enforcement of the rules.
Signs had also been placed at each entrance to the cemeteries, notifying folks that rules would begin to be enforced on January 1, 2017.
The gathering on Wednesday morning was the most vocal yet, as many citizens aired their grievances with loud voices and many comments laced with profanities hurled toward Steele and other board members present.
The gathering was marked with raised voices and many people talking at once. Steele and the other board members tried to address these concerns as best they could.
One of the problems, Steele stated afterwards, was the misinformation being spread. “There are so many stories going around about what we are and are not doing. I want to say that these rules are being enforced at each cemetery, not just the Brownfield Cemetery. They all fall under the same guidelines and rules.”
Another bit of false information, according to Steele is that not everyone is being treated the same. “I assure you, everyone will be following the same rules. If we make an exception for one, we have to make that same exception for all the others. We simply cannot do that, so everyone will follow the rules that have been in place for over 30 years.”
The removal of items and clean up of the cemetery was not prompted by complaints from anyone in particular. It was a response to what was becoming a problem with maintenance.
All three cemeteries under the guidance of the board are being treated identically. The same cleanup is taking place in each one.
Everyone in the crowd had a different story to tell and concerns to voice. Some talked of broken statues and items simply being tossed to the side when removed from the grave. “It is not right for them to do this to our graves. We have the right to grieve the way we see fit. If we want to place things on our loved ones’ graves, we should be able to. We paid for the grave,” stated one distraught mother who had lost her daughter.
A common misconception is that the purchasing of the plot makes you the owner of that piece of land. What you are actually buying is the right to be buried on cemetery property.
Another upset citizen threw a broken resin statue of an angel at Steele’s feet. “What are you going to do about this? You don’t have the right to destroy our property,” he stated.
Steele attempted to offer an apology for broken items. “The way some of these items are placed in concrete, they are impossible to remove without some breakage occurring.
This is why we have pleaded with the citizens for over four months to start cleaning up their grave sites and get them up to code. We don’t want to break people’s personal items. I know our guys try their best to not destroy any property.”
His comments were met with disdain and shouts from the crowd.
The group finally dispersed after nearly two hours of heated discussion and comments.
The bottom line in all this is that the rules will be enforced if the cemetery is to be able to continue to be a usable cemetery. If they do not follow the rules set down by the state, the cemeteries could be condemned and would no longer be able to be used. Something no one wants.
Steele stated after the gathering that in fielding calls and questions from those concerned with what is going on at the cemeteries, “I would guess 90% of the calls I have received have been in support of what we are trying to do. I know this is a touchy issue and we are not discounting that fact. But we are a volunteer board, trying our best to maintain quality care for our deceased loved ones’ final resting places.”
Every member of the Cemetery Board does have loved ones buried at one or more of the cemeteries.
Steele did request that it be pointed out that benches that were properly permitted and in place prior to November 1 would be allowed to remain. He again urged those with loved ones placed in any of the cemeteries to police their own area, in order to avoid the loss of items with sentimental value.
Items removed by the staff have been placed at the headstones for the family to pick up. They are giving the families 30 days to come pick up their items before they are destroyed.
Another question Steele wanted to address was that of flags on the graves. “We never said we were going to remove flags. We will continue to honor our veterans with the utmost respect due them. I have no idea where that story came from. We never had any intention of removing flags from the headstones of veterans.” Missing flags could be the result of the 40 to 50 mph winds we have been having lately.
A reminder from the cemetery board is that no further permits are being issued at this time, other than for the setting of headstones. Any and all permanent work on a grave must be permitted. This includes any curbing, brickwork or statues.
Also, there continues to be the rule of no drinking of alcohol or cooking of food at any of the cemeteries. Oddly, this has been an issue at times.
After Wednesday’s furor and shouting, Thursday morning found many people working hard at the cemeteries making sure their family’s grave sites were in keeping with the guidelines of the state and the county cemetery board.