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Mourners’ decorations: How much is too much?

Tokens and trinkets called a matter of taste, maintenance problem

At Melrose Cemetery in Brockton, families adorn their loved ones' gravestones with stuffed animals, toys, flowers, and photos. At Melrose Cemetery in Brockton, families adorn their loved ones' gravestones with stuffed animals, toys, flowers, and photos. (Bill Greene/Globe staff)
By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / August 6, 2009

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Weather-beaten stuffed animals. Empty alcohol bottles. Bong pipes, beer cans, headphones, and cigarette lighters. Flags and ceramic figurines.

Discards on the side of a road?

No, these are just a few of the items that mourners have left behind at the Melrose Cemetery in Brockton.

Lately, excessive cemetery decor is becoming an issue in some communities south of Boston, prompting them to tighten regulation of their burial grounds. Towns in the area are working to tone down some displays, even as some immigrant groups say the memorials are part of their culture.

Melrose Cemetery is an example of the contradiction in aesthetics.

Tradition meets elegance on one side of the sprawling city graveyard, where generations of Brocktonians and war veterans have found their final resting place amid rows of granite tombstones, Greek-style monuments, and immaculately groomed sites adorned with identical white markers and small American flags. Among those buried here is William L. Douglas, a former governor, senator, and mayor who fought in the Civil War’s Battle of Cold Harbor. In peacetime, he owned the W.L. Douglas Shoe Co. until his death in 1924.

On the other side of the North Pearl Street site is a new section of the cemetery, where a cacophony of large, brightly colored bunches of artificial flowers, solar spotlights, overgrown plantings, ceramic mushrooms, garden gnomes, and flags from several countries have lent a decidedly different air to the historic cemetery, city officials say.

“It’s a cultural thing,’’ said Parks Commissioner John Dorgan. “In my generation, and in my parents’ generation, you didn’t do things like that. Maybe you planted geraniums. . . . I went by a teddy bear the other day that was as big as I am.’’

Recently, a woman stopped by Dorgan’s office to say she had put out a fire at the cemetery. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ’’ Dorgan recalled. Turned out, he said, a family had left burning incense there.

The trend has been growing for some time, along with the diversity of residents. In Cape Verde, for example, off the western coast of Africa, grieving families pile colorful, elaborate decorations on the graves of loved ones, said George Fiske, owner of Funerarais Multi Culturel, a new funeral home in Brockton that serves African-Americans as well as immigrants from Haiti, Cape Verde, and Puerto Rico.

He noted that Cape Verdean cemeteries are as far from the sweeping, manicured lawns of American burial grounds as they could be. “There, they are all dirt and weeds and basically you can put anything there you want because the family has to take care of it,’’ Fiske said.

Brockton has only three people on staff to tend the city’s cemeteries, following budget cuts and layoffs, he said. Decorated graves make it nearly impossible to navigate lawn mowers between lots.

“It’s not just a cultural thing, it’s a maintenance problem,’’ Fiske said. “Families want to personalize, but the guys just can’t handle it.’’

Rules and regulations, printed in English only, are available for Melrose and other Brockton cemeteries, Dorgan said.

Brian Killelea, secretary of the Massachusetts Cemetery Association, said that while all cemeteries in the state have regulations, “the state doesn’t regulate cemeteries across the board, so each has its own rules. Some allow planting. Some don’t. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’’

He said, “Everyone has tunnel vision, thinking their family is the only one that matters. Our job is to look out for everybody.’’

As general manager of Worcester County Memorial Park, Killelea has seen it all, including full-size Christmas trees with lights powered by car batteries.

“On Halloween, we’ve had people dressed as skeletons decorating graves with witches and pumpkins as if it were their house,’’ he said.

The purchase of a cemetery lot, however, does not mean you own that small rectangle of land, said Thomas Daly of Westwood, a consultant with Cemetery Helpful Solutions. Daly is also the legislative and consumer affairs liaison for the state cemetery association and works nationally on cemetery issues.

“Yes, truthfully, things have gotten carried away and need to be pushed back,’’ he said. “But what a person will decorate a grave with is their decision in the grief process. The family cares about the loss of the loved one, and the cemetery is the guardian of that loved one.’’

In Norwell, mourners must keep flowers and memorials flush with gravestones at the Washington Street Cemetery, said Cemetery Commission chairwoman Gertrude Daneau. But even if workers move statues and other items back toward the stone, before long, visitors have spread them out again.

“One thing I personally don’t care for is the balloons,’’ said Daneau, a retired teacher whose grandparents, parents, husband, and sister are all buried there.

Bunches of multicolored Mylar generally appear on birthdays and Mothers’ Day and bob around for about a week before they are removed.

“For a couple of days I won’t mind something there. Then, I want it gone,’’ Daneau said.

It’s the same story in Duxbury, where officials said they just completed one of many periodic sweeps through their cemeteries, removing a sizeable collection of shepherd’s crooks, pinwheels, and floral displays.

Duxbury has a list of what isn’t acceptable, including: “no plastic flowers, glass vases, glass picture frames, or any burning lights or candles . . . no coping, curbing, fencing, hedging, grave mounds, borders or enclosures.’’

At Knollwood Cemetery in Canton, the list goes on: “leave natural flowers only (no artificial flowers, balloons, pinwheels, plant hangers, baskets, crosses or other items) . . . do not place any stones or other hard objects on the bronze memorials. Potted plants, plantings or digging are not permitted.’’

In Brockton, City Councilor Todd Petti said he believes some of the graves in the city’s cemeteries resemble roadside memorials, so cluttered with trinkets that they impair maintenance crews’ ability to mow and edge.

“A cemetery should be a well-groomed, manicured place to respect those who have passed and to allow them to rest in eternity,’’ said Petti, who plans to prepare a city ordinance to tighten restrictions.

Mayor James Harrington said he would support any City Council action.

“It should look beautiful,’’ Harrington said. “Yes, we certainly want to be concerned about peoples’ feelings. But we still have to do what it takes to keep order.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.

Editor’s Note: An Aug. 6 Globe South story about excessive cemetery decorations and its accompanying photographs included several oversights and areas of insensitivity, violating standards for publication. The story included photographs of two gravesites at Melrose Cemetery in Brockton, with names of the deceased prominently visible. The photographs were meant to serve as examples of the kind of decoration that cemetery superintendents said they are trying to curb. In fact, that cemetery’s superintendent never said that the gravesites pictured carried too many decorations, and neither gravesite had the level of decoration that was highlighted in the story. In violation of Globe standards, no attempt was made to contact families of the deceased in the photographs, and there was no viewpoint from mourners on why they decorate gravesites as they do.