Sunken headstones: Families fed up by conditions at New Mexico cemetery

On Special Assignment

FARMINGTON, N.M. (KRQE) –A cemetery is supposed to be a serene place, where the focus can be on paying respects or reconnecting with someone you’ve lost. Some New Mexico families claim that’s been harder to do at their local cemetery. They say the owners have let it turn into a mess.

“It’s just not right,” said Lafrances. “We want our loved ones to have some dignity,” said Jennifer Martinez.

Each of the women who reached out to KRQE News 13 about the issue knows what it’s like to lose someone they love. The story they’re sharing starts at their family members’ final resting place, Memory Gardens Cemetery in Farmington.

“She got discharged out of the military and moved out here and met my dad,” said Blanchard. When Blanchard’s mother died in 2008, she says Memory Gardens was a nice place. However, over the last couple of years, conditions there worsened, she said.

Photo of flooded gravesites at Memory Gardens

“Like just straight rivers flooding it, there’s weeds, there’s sticker bushes, there’s no grass in sections, there’s sunken plots,” said Blanchard. “There is [sic] roads where they have driven over people,” she added, referring to tire marks found ontop of gravesites.

In certain sections of Memory Gardens Cemetery, flooding has resulted in sunken headstones and dried grass. Families also say they’ve found flowers and memorabilia in trash bags on the premises.

It was enough for someone to create a Memory Gardens Protest Facebook group, with people sharing their complaints. Earlier this month, someone used the group’s platform to track down a family member after an urn was found in the cemetery’s garbage.

“That’s uncalled for,” said Heather Sullivan. Her 4-year-old son, Ethan, was buried there 12 years ago. “One day, I just sat there for hours picking goatheads off his grave. I just got fed up at that point where I just wanted to visit, and it to be nice,” she added.

Over the years, visiting her son’s gravesite became work, Sullivan explained. “I spent all day laying sod, and I would go with five-gallon buckets, and take five-gallon buckets and water his grass,” she recalled.

Currently, her set-up is much larger. “I ended up going and buying a water tank, and a water pump, and a generator, and hoses to get to my son’s grave,” said Sullivan. “And people saw what I was doing.”

Heather Sullivan said she planted her own grass at her son’s gravesite.

Not everyone lives close enough to come and visit their loved ones’ gravesite, so that’s where people like Sullivan come in. She said people started asking her whether she worked for the cemetery, and wanted help caring for their loved ones’ gravesites.

“Everybody deserves the dignity of having their final resting place be beautiful, and that’s what we’ve paid for,” Sullivan said. Over the summer, she said she’d spend roughly 3-4 hours a day at the cemetery doing her own maintenance work.

Sullivan said says she now helps care for more than 30 gravesites, and won’t accept payment. “When people are showing up to visit their loved ones, they are having to go through a whole new agony again, and that’s not right,” she added.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Debi Tom, whose husband Stanley is also buried at Memory Gardens. Stanley, an Army veteran, died in 2016.

“Our grief is real and that our requests, I don’t think are outrageous or beyond the scope of what a cemetery should be able to offer,” said Debi Tom. She claims cemetery staff has shown a lack of compassion when asked to fix problems on the property.

“There was never a time where I just had made a request and they said, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Tom,’ you know,” Tom recalled. “It always was something that I basically felt that I had to fight for.”

KRQE News 13 called Memory Gardens management, who said to call the owner in Arizona. Jerry Guttman, the owner of Serenity and Company, which runs cemeteries in Arkansas, California, and New Mexico, called back.

Guttman told KRQE News 13 his staff has been threatened by angry family members over the conditions around the gravesites. He said they’ve had to hire security in the past.

Farmington Police said so far this year, their department has been called to the property 11 times. Only two reports were filed, both regarding vandalism to sprinkler and watering equipment.

“Maybe they can’t afford to take care of it, maybe they can’t afford to do the plumbing or the grass, or maybe they’re sick themselves,” said Blanchard. “Well, turn it over to somebody else.”

KRQE News 13 checked with the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department. Memory Gardens is one of 16 cemeteries in the state that offers Endowed Care, which should be a guarantee for perpetual upkeep.

“You can only use the interest that’s earned off that trust,” explained Christopher Moya, Director for the state’s Regulation and Licensing Financial Institutions Division.

“The thought is that when you buy this plot or you buy this section with the cemetery, the proceeds from your purchase go into a care fund, which is held in trust,” explained Moya, referring to endowed care cemeteries. “And that trust is to be held in perpetuity, and the income off of that trust is to be used for upkeep.

Moya explained the state’s role is to ensure endowed care trust funds aren’t touched. However, he said he’s seen cases where a cemetery with endowed care runs out of space, stops generating revenue, and runs into maintenance problems because the interest isn’t enough to keep the grounds in order.

The state’s oversight authority, however, is only financial. “We don’t have any authority in the statute to intervene on the upkeep of the cemetery,” said Moya.

RLD Superintendent, Maguerite Salazar said she’d like to come up with a better solution for cemeteries in need of care across New Mexico. “The way I look at it, it’s part of our history throughout the state,” said Salazar. “We really do need to take a look at those that have just been left, and what can we do to bring them back?”

Doing more to preserve that history, Salazar said, would better serve the families who’ve already suffered loss. “I really believe that getting these cemeteries back into good shape is something that we should do,” said Salazar. “And I am committed to being a part of that to help provide that leadership.”

“Whether it be with veterans or student groups, and different people in the community to put these cemeteries back in good condition,” Salazar added. “They’re real treasures.”

“It’s really a heartfelt issue for all of us,” said Debi Tom. “We all come from different walks of life, but the issues are all unbelievably similar,” she said, referring to other families who have loved ones buried at Memory Gardens.

Owner Jerry Guttman said Memory Gardens always tries to work with families to resolve any maintenance issues. Maguerite Salazar said the Regulation and Licensing Department will reach out to other agencies to see if they can pitch in to help clean up neglected cemeteries around New Mexico.

On Special Assignment

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