Quiet warning

The new operators of Sunset Gardens have posted signs to discourage people from leaving family keepsakes on graves at the cemetery.

HENDERSON — A change in ownership and a change in practices at Sunset Gardens cemetery has triggered a social-media controversy pitting the families of some of the people buried there against the new owner.

The change happened on Dec. 3, when local businessman Ricky Pearce acquired all the stock of Sunset Gardens Inc., the 59-year-old company that owns the burial ground, its buildings and equipment. Terms of the sale were undisclosed, but a filing with the Vance County register of deeds confirmed that Pearce had taken over the company from its former president, Willard Haithcock.

The deal otherwise came with little fanfare, at least until the warmer weather of spring arrived and it was time to begin mowing the grass.

The problem was that a number of people over the preceding weeks, months and years had left keepsakes of varying sorts, not just flowers, on their relatives’ graves. And apparently, the prior owner hadn’t minded all that much.

But Pearce’s examination of the cemetery’s rules convinced him both that the practice wasn’t allowed, and that the cemetery staff had the right to remove them.

They followed through on that, and controversy ensued, playing out on web services like Facebook and Yelp. There’s also a change.org petition calling for Pearce to sell the property.

“There’s over 11,000 people people buried in Sunset Garden right now,” Pearce said this week. “I’ve got to take care of it and make it look nice. This thing has been going on for over a month now. I’ve been called, harassed, talked-to and have apologized.”

The complaints take issue with the removals, with a lack of notices to families and with the allegedly disrespectful disposal of the keepsakes — or “trinkets” as both Pearce and some of his critics call them.

The change.org petition alleges that there was “no true warning to these families that rules that had not been enforced for more than a decade would be reinstated by the cemetery,” and that in some cases “sacred mementos” had gone into the trash.

Criticism was already mounting by the third full week of April.

At some point, Pearce and his staff posted a notice on the cemetery’s website, sunsetgardensinc.com, that said “all figurines, lights, non-military flags and any and all other items not secured in your memorial vase must be picked up by family members by May 1 or they will be removed by cemetery maintenance.”

Pearce and his critics do agree on one thing — families with plots at the U.S. 158 burial ground should read the fine print of their contracts. Pearce believes such a review clearly establishes “what the cemetery has the right to do.”

His critics believe likewise, though not necessarily that it would work in his favor. Some note that contract provisions can vary over time, and, like the petition, contend the lack of prior enforcement undercuts the case for taking a hard line now.

Some plot purchases at Sunset over the years have been publicly recorded with the register of deeds. One of the more recent of those, filed in September 2008, includes a stipulation that Sunset Gardens Inc. has the right to make and adopt rules for “the building, maintenance and beautification” of the cemetery.

Other provisions give the company the right to approve and place markers, and otherwise forbid the placement of a “monumental work, tombstone, marker, vault, fence, memorial mound or other object of any kind protruding above the surface of the ground.”

Such stipulations aren’t necessarily unusual.

“Most of the cemeteries — and I dig graves for the funeral homes — have rules as strong as mine,” Pearce said.

The city-owned Elmwood Cemetery, for example, is subject to City Council-approved law that says “no items, except as permitted below, may be placed on a grave site,” that “items will be removed and disposed [of] without notice” and that “the city is not responsible reimbursing for the value of the items.”

The exception at Elmwood is for “cut flowers, wreaths, baskets, designs and frames” that “may be placed on graves for Christmas, Easter, Memorial Day and the deceased’s birthday.” But even those must be removed after 14 days, and after that can be “disposed without notice” or reimbursement.

City Public Works staff couldn’t be reached Friday for comment on whether the actual practice at Elmwood by Henderson’s hired maintenance contractors reflects those provisions.

Contact Ray Gronberg at rgronberg@hendersondispatch.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.

Contact Ray Gronberg at rgronberg@hendersondispatch.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.