Tulare Cemetery District disinters two misplaced bodies

Reggie Ellis

Cemetery board will hold a meeting March 25 to discuss changes to prevent it from happening again after a history of burying bodies in the wrong plots

TULARE – Burying a loved one is one of the most difficult things many of us will do in our lives. Having to bury them twice is almost unbearable.

Despite the difficulty of reliving that grief, one family decided to share their story of how they held a ceremony to bury their father whose body was dug up a month later because it was buried in the wrong plot. In an interview with Univision earlier this month Maria Fernandez said her father, Silvano Martinez, died on Feb. 8 and was buried at the Tulare Public Cemetery on Feb. 12. On March 5, the family was told Martinez was buried in the wrong plot and his body was disinterred on March 8 and reburied in the correct plot.

“This should not happen twice,” Fernandez told Univision.

Unfortunately, it already did.

Xavier Avila, president of the cemetery’s board of directors, said there were two disinterments on March 8, one body which was buried on Feb. 12 and another on Feb. 19. He said he could not comment on who was disinterred due to privacy laws and potential litigation. Avila said he was there during the dual disinterments and said he could not express enough regret to the family for the error.

“Disnterment is too traumatic for a family to go through,” Avila said. “It’s really disappointing when you don’t catch these things before the burial actually happens.”

Cemetery district manager Leonor Castenada said this was possibly the fourth time this has happened since she became manager in late 2017. The Sun-Gazette has filed a public records act request with the district to determine how many bodies have been reburied at the cemetery but the results of that request were not available as of press time.

In response to the dual disinterments, Avila called a special board meeting on March 9. The meeting opened at 4 p.m. and immediately went into a closed session which Avila described as the longest in his three years on the board. There was nothing to report out of closed session at that meeting.

In attendance at that meeting was Brian Viera, the groundskeeper/foreman in charge of both the Jacinto and Martinez burials, who was fired the day before the meeting on March 8. The 13-year veteran told the Sun-Gazette he was fired for the mistake but said he did his job as directed.

“I was used as a scape goat,” Viera said. “I’ve been doing this for 13 years and I know how to do my job.”

Viera said the cemetery has 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.”

“The mix-up is in the office and they need a better system,” Vierra said. “Mistakes have happened in the past and no one was fired.”

The cemetery board will meet again this Thursday, March 25 and looks to again have a lengthy closed session. Item 3.4 is anticipated litigation from Viera. Castenada confirmed Viera’s last day of work was on March 8, the day before March 9 special meeting.

“When I asked why I was fired, she told me ‘I don’t need to tell you why,’” Viera said of Castenada when he showed up for work on March 8.

Avila said he could not comment on Viera’s employment but did say the board took “appropriate personnel action” in response to the disinterments. Viera said he is unsure if he will take legal action but has not yet ruled it out.

The March 25 agenda also lists two potential lawsuits regarding “interment and burial” for Justinana Jacinto and Silvano Martinez, whose family spoke up about their father’s disinterment. It also lists evaluations of both the district manager and lead foreman.

“I will never sweep this kind of thing under the rug,” Avila said. “If we don’t take the heat that comes with this mistake, then we will never make it right.”

In the public session, Avila said the board will discuss the creation of a committee to review burial verification protocol. Avila said he is proposing a three-step verification system where two groundskeepers independently confirm a plot to be dug up for a burial and then the district office confirms the plot before instructing the groundskeepers to begin digging. Avila said the seven-person committee will include two board members, three members of the public, a groundkeeper and the district manager.

“It’s important for the public to have confidence in the people on the board to do what is necessary,” Avila said. “If we don’t make changes now, this will happen again.”

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