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How secure are our cemeteries?

April 1, 2018

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — For Nona Short, the shock remains.

In 1991 the then 25-year-old woman was standing by her mother’s graveside at a Tuscaloosa cemetery. Her brothers were 20 and 14. When the family returned to the cemetery the next day, thieves had struck.

“All of the flowers that had been at the funeral had been stolen overnight,” Short, a Prattville resident, said. “There were close to two dozen plants and sprays, both live and artificial. Losing your mom at a young age and then having the theft occur at her gravesite really hit me hard.”

Cemeteries, small and large, newer and ancient, dot the Alabama landscape. Some are sprawling sites in prominent metropolitan areas. Others are tucked away in small secluded pockets in the country, lost to time. Thefts from grave sites and vandalism of cemeteries are hard crimes to track. Sometimes police reports are filed. Sometimes the acts may go unnoticed for long periods of time.

The thefts hardly ever involve items of much value, an arrangement of flowers here, a memento there. But it’s the sentiment that is hard to place a value on, and the feeling of violation.

Three years ago, someone stole an American flag from Kellie Cole’s father’s grave in a Troy cemetery. Her father was a Vietnam veteran.

“Daddy was proud of his service,” she said of the retired senior USAF non-commissioned officer. Cole lives in Montgomery. “That’s why we put the flag on his grave. I mean really, stealing an American flag from a veteran’s grave?”

Thefts from and vandalism of cemeteries seems to by cyclic, said Ted Urquhart, of the Alabama Cemetery Preservation Alliance. The group finds “lost” cemeteries and offers help in preserving and documenting old cemeteries.

“You just can’t believe the things some people do,” Urquhart said. “We have found that thefts and vandalism is very cyclical. It’s almost like it depends which phase the moon is in. Several years ago we saw a rash of thefts of floral urns from gravesites. We felt that was people stealing them to sell for scrap metal.

“Most vandalism incidents involve teenagers. They may have a party at an old cemetery. They’ll leave trash behind, empty beer bottles, things like that. Occasionally they may break or overturn gravestones.”

The Legislature passed a law governing the sale of scrap metal about three years ago. It calls for, among other things, for sellers to present a photo ID and buyers to pay in checks not cash. The law just about cut out thefts of urns and other metal items from cemeteries, he said.

“It made it more difficult to sell potentially stolen items,” Urquhart said.

The problem of thefts from and vandalism of cemeteries is a nationwide issue.

— In Philadelphia, vandals knocked over or damaged more than 100 tombstones in the Mt. Carmel Cemetery in the Wissinoming neighborhood, according to local news media outlets.

— In New London, Ohio two women were charged with stealing items from the Grove Street Cemetery, according to a story posted on Aug. 17, by Fox 8 Cleveland. Surveillance cameras at the cemetery captured images of the two women driving around, and allegedly stealing mostly floral arrangements.

— In Clio, Michigan law enforcement officials recovered more than 180 items stolen from two different cemeteries, according to a story posted on June 31 by wnem.com. The woman charged in the thefts was allegedly using the items to decorate her home. One of the items she allegedly stole was a decorative bench from the grave of a young woman who died of cancer.

— In Columbia, South Carolina more than 100 graves were vandalized at Greenlawn Memorial Park, according to a story posted on July 2 by thestate.com. Damage to the gravesites including shredding of flowers and American flags, and destruction of vases.

Locally, reports of thefts and vandalism appear to follow the cyclic pattern Urquhart spoke of. In Prattville the city addressed incidents at Pratt Cemetery two decades ago. The cemetery is where the city’s founder, Daniel Pratt, and several of his relatives rest. It’s located on the hill overlooking the city’s iconic “gin shop” complex. After vandalism incidents that include the breaking and thefts of several headstones, the city secured the site with a locked gate. Electronic sensors and cameras were also installed.

The devices are monitored by the Prattville Police Department. If someone enters the cemetery, a loudspeaker broadcasts a recorded voice saying that the people are trespassing and that police have been called.

At New Live Oak Cemetery in Selma, Dale Fuller takes a decidedly simple approach to securing floral arrangements placed on his parents’ graves.

“We use heavy concrete planters, and I drove a piece of metal rebar through the drain holes, anchoring them to the ground,” he said. “People may still steal the flowers, but at least they have to work for it.”

The location and nature of cemeteries make securing them difficult. In rural areas, they are often secluded. Visits to family plots can often be weeks or months apart. Even in large cities it’s not suspicious to see vehicles coming and going throughout the day and people walking among the headstones.

Some simple steps can be taken, said Ricky Lowery, chief deputy of the Elmore County Sheriff’s Office. Lighting is key, he said.

“Some of the churches in the rural parts of the county have lights around the buildings and parking lots,” he said. “Lights around the cemeteries is a good start. And some of the churches have security cameras that cover the buildings and parking lots and some of the other areas around the church.”

In Autauga County, deputies on patrol routinely check churches and cemeteries, said Sheriff Joe Sedinger.

“We check on cemeteries, when we can get to them,” he said. “Some are easily accessible, and others are hard to get to. And if a cemetery is on private property, not visible from a road, we really can’t check them on a regular basis.”

Vigilance and luck may be the best approach, Urquhart said.

“It’s hard to consider that there are people who want to steal from cemeteries, or do damage to cemeteries,” he said. “They are supposed to be sacred places, places of rest. Thankfully, the vast majority of people honor that.”

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Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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