Cindy Lamb and her family visit Mesa City Cemetery about once every two weeks to place fresh flowers on the graves of more than a dozen relatives. Some are adorned with additional decorations.
The grave of her father-in-law, a veteran, was dressed up with an American flag and red, white and blue carnations. A shepherd’s hook planted behind her mother-in-law’s headstone supported wind chimes that Lamb, a Mesa native, changed with the seasons.
The only time of year they don’t visit the cemetery, she said, is around Christmas. "It’s too hard, because the holidays were a really big deal for our family," she explained.
But Lamb and others who visit grave sites, are upset about Mesa’s stepped-up efforts to clean up decorations left at the cemetery. City officials said they are doing it in response to complaints.
Over the past 112 years, the cemetery at 1212 N. Center St. has become the resting place for more than 30,000 people of all ages, races and classes. When Lamb returned there early this month she was startled to find all the decorations on her in-laws’ graves were gone. She was even more dismayed when cemetery officials told her the items, along with those removed from numerous other graves, were piled behind a huge mound of dirt.
Cemetery operations supervisor Rob McCauley said the nine-member staff conducted a more thorough version of an annual cleanup of Christmas decorations and other items, done after a Jan. 10 deadline had passed.
McCauley said most years he doesn’t have the manpower to conduct a complete sweep of the 65-acre property, but he made it a priority this year in response to "hundreds" of complaints about the amount of decorations and mementos that violated cemetery regulations, which limit decorations to permanent vases attached to the grave markers.
"They really are (against the rules), but we try to let those things go to a certain extent," McCauley said. He said since this year’s cleanup, his office has received about 100 positive comments and 15 complaints.
During the last year or so, he said, the number of complaints had risen regarding the Heritage Garden section on the west end.
This is the newest area and the only one where plots are still available. "There were some people who came to look at plots and thought that detracted from the look of the place," McCauley said.
Lamb, who said she can’t remember any items ever being removed from any of her relatives’ grave sites, disagreed: "I just think they looked like they were more loved, and cared for."
Angela Kiper of Mesa has been a frequent visitor to the cemetery since her 21-year-old son, David, was buried there after a July 2000 automobile crash. She has brought her grass clippers to help tidy up his plot and the one she bought next to him for herself.
She didn’t lose anything of monetary or emotional value to the cleanup, and remembers seeing signs warning of the cleanup during the last two Christmas seasons, but didn’t think the deadline was enforced.
"I know the city has the right to do that and that’s their policy, but they didn’t say, ‘We’re really going to do it this time,’ " Kiper said.
McCauley said the cemetery tried to communicate that by expanding their efforts to notify visitors about the planned cleanup, putting up additional signs at the entrance gates, taking out ads in the Tribune and having a notice inserted in city utility bills.
McCauley said he doesn’t have any figures for how much was removed from the cemetery during this year’s weekand-a-half-long cleanup. The cemetery has no other space besides that behind the mound of dirt large enough to put all of the decorations, which are left there for a month or more after being taken off the grave sites.
He said it would be impossible to contact everyone who left an item on one of the grave sites. Any unclaimed decorations are donated to local charities.
After going through the pile of collected decorations, Lamb could only find the shepherd’s hook. She said what bothered her the most, though, were the American flags she saw on the ground.
She wrote a letter to Mayor Keno Hawker. The mayor said, "I think we came to the conclusion that we could have handled this better."
He said communication with family members would help, but he hadn’t been aware of the utility bill inserts or extra signage.
Cemetery staff rarely remove foliage from the permanent vases and intend to make efforts to respect family decoration efforts, McCauley said. He noted a large portion of the headstones have a splash of color. And in the Heritage Garden, many grave sites still bear pink balloons, placards and other Valentine’s Day decorations.