Residents share grave concerns about Tulare Cemetery

Public, board members react to news of dual disinterments at Tulare Cemetery District earlier this month

TULARE – The public’s reaction to two bodies being buried in the wrong graves nearly killed the Tulare Cemetery District’s meeting last week.

The cemetery board’s March 23 meeting was the first opportunity for the public to comment since the bodies of Justinana Jacinto and Silvano Martinez were disinterred on March 8 after the mistake was discovered by groundkeepers. Those in attendance lashed out at board chair Xavier Avila and district manager Lenore Castenada for the district’s mishandling of their own family funerals with complaints ranging from “rudeness” at the district office to a lack of transparency at board meetings.

“I dealt with both families and a lot of the comments today are dead accurate,” Avila said. “If you look at the closed session agenda it tells you we are taking it seriously.”

Both distinterments were on the closed session agenda for the meeting and the board did report they had reached a settlement with the Jacintos for more than $3,000.

Even board member Jim Pennintgton admitted one of his family members had been buried in the wrong plot about eight years ago and that another family member’s headstone was placed at the wrong gravesite.

“I feel bad and take it very seriously and it’s going to be fixed,” Pennington vowed.

As the meeting went on, the crowd at the board meeting grew irate and began challenging Avila’s every word, mostly at a conversational tone but also with an occasional outburst. Then other groups began complaining they couldn’t hear over the chatter. Avila repeatedly reminded those in attendance of the rules of decorum which accompany every agenda and warned those in attendance he would call the cops and shut down the meeting if people kept talking out of turn.

When it came time for board member comments, Alberto Aguilar said he has served on the board since September 2017 and not one of the disinterments, at four since 2017 and possibly as many as eight since 2016, were ever brought to the board’s attention and therefore were performed without the board’s knowledge.

“I want to give my sincere apology to the family members of Justinana Jacinto and Silvano Martinez regarding the disrespectful, unethical and illegal manner that they were disgracefully treated,” Aguilar read in a statement he provided to the media earlier that day.

He also mentioned one of the foremen found bones while digging the grave for Dollie Faria, a prominent member of the Tulare area who died in November 2019. She was named Tulare’s Woman of the Year in 2005.

“I am appalled to learn through the media of the number of other disinterment’s that have been done without board knowledge or approval, but not surprised due to the lack of accountability and transparency that exists and on-going at this cemetery district,” Aguilar stated before being cutoff by Avila, who repeatedly warned Aguilar for speaking on items reserved for closed session.

At about 11:35 a.m., Avila instructed Castenada to call the cops, stopped the meeting and instructed everyone to clear the chambers except for board members.

Aguilar left with the crowd to finish a statement he had begun reading earlier in the meeting. When Tulare Police officers arrived, Avila spoke with them and agreed to resume the meeting, and let everyone back into the room as long as they agreed to be respectful of those who were talking.

“The public has rightly accused us of being dysfunctional, and that’s true,” Avila said. “But those same people are the ones disrupting the meeting and making it difficult to get things done.”

Digging deeper

Former board member Vikky Gilson contended the cemetery was in violation of state law for digging up and reburying the bodies. The cemetery district manager can issue a permit for disturbing remains but only if a consent form has been signed by the deceased’s spouse, children, parents or siblings. The Martinez family claimed their father would not have wanted to move his remains and were shocked when they were told it was happening. If a surviving family member cannot be reached, a court order from the Tulare County Superior Court would be needed, according to California Health and Safety Code section 7500. Even in those extreme cases, the law requires the cemetery to attempt to make personal contact with the family 10 days before or attempt to reach them by mail 15 days before applying for disinterment with the court. The only exemption to these rules is if the body is being exhumed by the coroner for a criminal investigation.

Gilson blamed the disinterment on Avila, for not firing the district manager, and Castenada who she claimed “never kept good records and struggled to pay bill in a timely manner.” Gilson asked what the district policy was for handling burials and disinterments and restated the question several times in different ways before Castenada answered.

Castenada said the district does have a policy in place for disinterment.

“Was the process followed?” Gilson asked.

Neither Avila or Castenada responded but earlier in the meeting Avila essentially said he wasn’t sure if the policy had been followed.

“I still haven’t seen the paperwork with the graves up for discussion [in closed session],” Avila said.

In an interview after the meeting, Aguilar said he requested Castenada provide him with written materials regarding the dual disinterment but had not received them as of press time.

Buried in paperwork

The board did take action in an attempt to correct the burial issues. Avila formed a “Verification Protocol Committee” to not only establish a new verification process for when and where graves are opened for burials but also made it a standing committee to review the new process after implementation.

Former foreman Brian Viera, who was fired on March 8, told the Sun-Gazette last week the cemetery had been using a Google calendar system to schedule burial preparations for the last year. Under the system, the office schedules which plots are to be dug up. Groundskeepers check the schedule each day to ensure they are digging up the correct plot. Viera said he and another groundskeeper independently checked the plot prior to the Feb. 12 burial of Martinez. He then called in the grave location to the district office where it was confirmed by Castenada.

On Feb. 19, Viera said he noticed the same plot was scheduled for the Jacinto burial as the one he had just dug a week earlier. When he reported it to the office, Viera said Castenada told him to dig a new grave in front of the plot and that she would “fix the paperwork” to reflect the change. When he asked if she had notified the family yet, Viera said Castenada told him to “just do it.”

Avila said the problem with the current system is there is no one reviewing the decisions to make sure the policy was followed. He said all policies must be reviewed periodically to ensure they are still being followed.

“The employees wonder why they are doing it if no one ever looks at the paperwork and that’s how you end up with a mistake,” Avila said. “If we stay vigilant on that, then it will never happen again.”

Avila appointed himself and board member Charlie Ramos to represent the board as well as Sharon Crook and Vicki Gordon, local citizens active in the community. Avila said he had another person in mind for the five-member board but they were unable to make the commitment at this time. Only three of the committee members would need to attend a meeting at once in order to have a quorum for a public meeting.

“For one person [to be buried in the wrong plot] is unfortunate, but to have two people is insane,” Ramos said. “These burial issues have to be solved.”

Departing shots

Others public comments mentioned Castenada was rude to grieving families over the phone, a stark contrast to the groundskeepers who were polite and respectful when dealing with families in person.

Jesse Martin recalled his experience with Castenada last March during the burial of his daughter. Jessica died on March 18, 2020 and was set to be buried on March 27, 2020. Due to COVID restrictions, Martin was informed he and family members would not be allowed to get out of their cars during the ceremony. When a family member called the district manager to ask if immediate family could get out of the cars, Martin stated Castenada threatened that “if another family member called regarding this issue she was going to make the family stay outside the cemetery and look through the fence while the funeral services went on,” according to a letter he submitted to the board last June.

“All of this litigation is a symptom of mistrust for the board and management,” Martin said during public comment at the March 27 meeting. “In a lot of cases, families feel we’re ignored and have no recourse but to fill litigation.”

Kerri Hughes said she had to wait seven weeks to bury her husband Dennis, who died on May 16, 2020. Hughes was on her way to a second funeral in July when she got a call from Castenada that her husband’s funeral was going to have to be delayed again because one of the employees tested positive for COVID. When Hughes called to talk to the district manager and ask to keep the date, she says Castenada gruffly told her “that’s the date we have and you have to do it that date.”

The meeting’s agenda attempted to address the issue with an item titled “Complaint Form and Complaints.” The item included a form which detailed the grave location, information about the person buried there, and the person who filed the complaint. At the bottom of the form is a space for notes, which were scribbled onto the form, meaning they are digitally entered and cannot be searched for review. The attorney said it was “in the realm of protocol” but Ramos was unsatisfied.

“This is chicken scratch,” Ramos said. “This needs to be put back on the agenda.”

Ramos said the form was just a “location report” for repairs and grounds issues with no follow up or process for documenting the resolution. He asked Castenada how the system would note if someone had a complaint about her.

“If they complaint about me, I tell them they can take it to the board,” she said.

Castenada’s position was reviewed in closed session but there was no report of any action taken. She remains employed with the district. Prior to going into closed session, Aguilar said the district had a communication problem that originates from the district manager. He said the board needed to hire a “real district manager” because the problem has been ongoing.

“People are being buried all the time in the wrong place,” Aguilar said. “We put a system in place and it is not being followed.”

Instead, Aguilar said the board gave her a pay raise and doubled her vacation time.

Avila said he was proud of the district’s decision to give all of its employees a raise and noted Tulare’s district manager salary is “the lowest by far” when comparing with surrounding cemetery districts. He said hiring a more qualified district manager would require raising the salary even higher.

“We are trying to have the position at the right salary,” Avila said.

Higher power

Tulare City Councilman Jose Sigala didn’t attend the cemetery board meeting but took his concerns to the body that appointed most of its members. During public comment at the March 23 board of supervisors meeting, Sigala said he was appalled by news of disinterments and felt compelled to speak out on behalf of Tulare residents.

“It appears that the recent event is not the only case in which this has happened,” Sigala said. “Unfortunately, there may be more.”

He requested Supervisor Vander Poel, who represents Tulare as the District Two representative on the board, launch an investigation to look more closely into the issues at the cemetery, including fiscal mismanagement, board infighting and lack of public trust. As the appointing authority for the cemetery board, Sigala said the county needs to initiate an investigation to review policies, procedures and protocols at the cemetery district.

“It is my expectation that Supervisor Vander Poel use his authority over this board to make sure horrific situations like those reported do not happen again,” Sigala concluded.

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