SAN ANGELO, TX -- Last week the Calvary Cemetery in San Angelo completed its annual spring cleaning of the gravesites and grounds, but the extensive cleaning has caused consternation for many of the loved ones of those who have been laid to rest.
According to multiple family members and friends, they were distressed to see personalized mementos and graveside memorials discarded in the trash. Many of the items they say were thrown away had been at gravesites for more than a decade.
"So many people could not find their items," said David Cedillo of family members who showed up to search the decorations thrown in the dumpsters.
Those who looked through the mountain of discarded items stated they were surprised to see religious artifacts like rosaries and crosses in the trash with fake flowers and other ornaments.
"We just want something to be done," said Mireya Alvarez. "Burying loved ones is hard and [with this cleanup] it's like losing them again."
San Angelo Live spoke with several individuals at the cemetery who expressed their disappointment at cemetery management because they felt the public had not been properly informed of the cleanup. They also described tense interactions with cleanup crews working at the cemetery.
"People came out here to collect their belongings to at least have that and workers were rude," said Daniel Nunez. "The fact that so many people had this happen to them is really ridiculous and the fact that this [cleanup] was not publicized more is also ridiculous...We pay money to have our loved ones buried out here and for them to be so disrespectful is absurd and unnecessary, and very wrong."
"We are saddened that cemetery patrons were surprised to find items discarded in the days following this cleanup. We are sorry that people were still unaware of the date of our latest scheduled cleanup. It is never our intention to cause further grief to the families whose loved ones are interred in Calvary Cemetery. We are sorry for any distress related to this weekend’s cleaning."
San Angelo Live reached out to Chancellor Mike Wyse, who manages the cemetery, and he explained the cemetery's perspective on the cleanup and controversy that ensued. According to Wyse, the cemetery began announcing the cleanup at least a month before to let family and friends know what would be happening the week of April 24th.
In a Facebook statement, the cemetery said "every effort was made to notify patrons ahead of this cleanup, in local media, on the website and Facebook page of Calvary Cemetery, in the West Texas Angelus, in church bulletins, and on local Catholic radio."
The cemetery's official Facebook page shows one post from March 9, 2021, announcing the date and the rules that clean-up crews would be enforcing. According to Wyse, signs were also posted outside the entrance of the cemetery.
The Facebook post stated all flowers and unauthorized items on or around the graves or items placed in trees would be removed. Several of the rules outlined in the post are on the bulletin boards at the entrance of the cemetery.
The list of unauthorized items includes borders, bricks, gravel/rocks, artificial turf, garden ornaments, wind chimes, statues, and all non-granite benches.
"I am sure that nobody is opposed to cleanups because the cemetery is supposed to be kept nice," said Christina Garcia. "The problem is that this new enforcement of policies was poorly communicated. We got people to know about what was going on after posting on social media and there are a lot of people who are still finding out."
The group told San Angelo Live that when they spoke with Wyse he stated that people didn't care enough about the items to pick them up beforehand and that's why they were then removed. Wyse pushed back on that claim.
"I don't think I said anything about people not caring," said Wyse. "I remember telling them that we had done our best to get the word out there for over a month and people never came and picked up their stuff so we picked it up."
According to Wyse, after the clean-up crews finished, trash bags were put into the bins on Sunday. That same day family members arrived at the cemetery and began digging through the bags and leaving them open with items on the floor. The cemetery then had to clean up the area once again on Monday and the situation escalated a bit as emotions ran high.
"We spent five hours picking it up and bagging everything up again and there were some people there for three and four hours who were in our face and harassed us the whole time," said Wyse. But the chancellor acknowledged that he understood why emotions ran high that day.
"It was just hard on everybody and I guess everybody was not at their best moment," said Wyse. "I can certainly understand how people are upset that mementos and memorials are gone and we feel bad having to take some of those things off the graves but the cleanup has to happen."
Wyse then explained that the current rules posted outside the cemetery and on the diocese's website are standard for most cemeteries and that stricter enforcement would be underway to keep the cemetery up to standards and allow routine cleaning of the area to be safe.
"As we become more organized and more aware of how the cemetery looks like with all that stuff out there, people start to call and complain," said Wyse. "We have decided we need to take a more proactive stance in keeping the cemetery clean."
According to Wyse, having excess items around the gravesites can make it difficult for maintenance crews to properly mow the areas around the graves and could be dangerous if any items were picked up by machinery.
Family members seemed upset with the new enforcements saying that benches that had been by gravesides and chained to trees for more than 15 years had not been a problem before. They also explained their surprise to see personalized memorials removed after years of being at the gravesites.
In response, Wyse stated, "the rules have always been there and we have tried to cut people some slack, but people kind of take advantage and put everything on the graves."
"We felt that this was really unjust and we started a petition to demand a change in the policy regarding memorials at Calvery Cemetery," said David Cedillo. 'We are the ones that pay for these lots, it is our loved ones here, and we don't feel like the decisions regarding their memorials should be left up to unaccountable officials."
"Calvary Cemetery management has the sole discretion in deciding what is unacceptable and what has become unacceptable. Therefore, owners, family, and friends are requested to follow the requirements below in order to safeguard the peace and serenity of the grounds and not hinder mowing and upkeep requirements."
The group that spoke with San Angelo Live spoke with families who showed up after the cleanup occurred and recorded some of their reactions. They also provided a 30-second video of an interaction with the cleanup crew.
Check out the video compilation below:
Wyse also clarified that as is the case with most cemeteries, family members only purchase the right to internment in that space so they do not have control over the top of the grave. Those rules are set by the diocese and cemetery management.
According to officials beginning May 1st, all decor that does not follow the rules will be permanently removed and disposed of without notice. This is an effort to "bring Calvary Cemetery up to a standard that is safe, respectful, and equitable for staff and visitors."
From now on the only decorations that will be permitted will be a single flower arrangement per grave that is placed in a non-breakable container that can be staked to the ground and a small American flag on national holidays.
Headstones with two vases may place flowers on both vases, but additional flowers will be removed.