Digging into disinterments at Tulare Cemetery

Tulare Cemetery has done more disinterments due to mistakes in the last five years than three other Tulare County cemetery districts combined

TULARE – Digging up a body at a cemetery is a lot more common than you think and much less unnerving than the movies portray it to be. That is, unless it’s due to something other than a request from a family member to relocate a late loved one, which has been far too common at the Tulare Public Cemetery District.

Coffins and urns are buried in vaults, concrete housings used to prevent the coffin from sinking deeper into ground and to protect the coffin from being crushed or cracked from the weight of the soil over time. The act of opening a gravesite and lowering remains or cremains into it, officially known as interments, are done by cemetery grounds crews with the responsibility of transporting the body to the cemetery falling to mortuaries.

Conversely, disinterments involve digging up a coffin or urn in order to relocate remains. Xavier Avila, chair of the Tulare Cemetery District’s board of trustees, said disinterments are becoming more common as families are more mobile and choose cremation over traditional burials more often. He said most disinterments are one of three scenarios—the family is moving a coffin to a family plot near where they live, the family is moving a coffin or urn to a new gravesite at the same cemetery to bury families in the same area, or families request to take home an urn as a reminder of loved ones or to spread their ashes.

Unfortunately, disinterments due to mistakes have become too commonplace for Tulare. There have been anywhere between four and eight disinterments due to error, people being buried in the wrong plots, dating back to as early as 2012, according to media reports, but are much more difficult to verify using the cemetery’s analogue system. Burials are tracked using large, hard-bound ledgers dating back to the cemetery’s first burial in 1890. Ledgers are organized by the Kern Cemetery, 50 acres on Kern Street, and the North Cemetery, 10 acres on J Street. Names can be searched in the district’s computers but must then be looked up in the ledger to find if there are any notes about the circumstances of an interment, or in this case, a disinterment.

The Valley Voice newspaper reported the number was as high as eight based on interviews with families and postings on the Facebook group Caring Cause, which was originally formed in 2016 to raise awareness about neglect of the grounds at the Tulare cemeteries. In April 2016, the family of Jimmie Renteria claimed he was buried in the wrong plot. But there were no notes in district paperwork showing Renteria was buried in the wrong plot, that he was disinterred or reburied at the cemetery.

Lydia Cervantes, who was recently appointed to serve as the interim clerk for the cemetery’s board of directors, said she suspects mistakes were not tracked because the documents are legally required to show the final resting place of the body. This was also the case for disinterments for two others the following year.

In March 2017, Trenity Monsibais died after a five-year battle with leukemia. Trenity’s mother, Alicia Monsibais, posted on Facebook a groundskeeper admitted six months after the burial he had dug grave #54 in Block D Row FF of the North Cemetery and buried her in a grave that belonged to someone else. In January 2018, she was disinterred and reburied in grave #51, just three spots over.

In April 2017, Janice Ojeda was buried in the wrong grave. Her daughter, Mary Lou, had selected a location near a large tree and immediately knew she had buried in the wrong grave. Ojeda remains in the same grave where she was buried at the North Cemetery after her family decided not to fight to disinter her and rebury her in the correct plot and instead asked for a refund of the $3,000 in burial fees.

In January 2021, Kerri Nelson-Hughes buried her husband in the Kern cemetery. And while he was buried incorrectly and disinterred, he was not buried in the wrong plot. Avila said urns are buried near the headstones to protect them from the weight of a coffin placed in the same vault. In the case of Dennis Hughes, the urn was buried in the middle of the gravesite, so the cemetery decided to dig it up and rebury it closer to the headstone.

“Not all of these disinterments being reported are the same,” Avila said.

The most glaring mistakes were the two most recent, which were disinterred on the same day. Silvano Martinez died on Feb. 8 and was buried on Feb. 12. On March 5, the family was told Martinez was buried in the wrong plot. On Feb. 19, groundskeeper Brian Viera said he noticed the same plot was scheduled for the burial of Justinana Jacinto as the one he had just dug a week earlier for Martinez. When he reported it to the office, Viera said district manager Lenore 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.” Both bodies were disinterred and buried in the correct plots on March 8 and Viera was fired later that day.

At its April 7 meeting, the board unanimously approved settlements with both families, including $3,518 for the Jacinto family and $6,400 for the Martinez family.

Body of work

Whether the number of disinterments due to mistakes number four, five, eight or more, the number is far more than any other cemetery has reported in the last 25 years. Cindy Summers, district manager for the Visalia Public Cemetery, said she has served in that position since 2016 and knew from speaking with the prior district manager there had not been a “burial mix-up” in more than 20 years.

Larry McKelvy, manager of Porterville Cemeteries District, said no bodies have been buried in the wrong place during his 23 years with the district, which manages eight different cemeteries in the Porterville-Springville area. He said the only thing that came close was an incident 17 years ago when someone purchased the wrong plot and then wanted to sell it and purchase a different plot just before a family was set to be buried there.

Brenda Altermatt manages the Lindsay-Strathmore Public Cemetery District, consisting of two cemeteries, one at the southeastern edge of Lindsay and the other in Frazier Valley east of Strathmore. She has managed the cemeteries since 2012 and said district paperwork shows there have only been two disinterments since 2005, both of which were requested by the family to either move to a different plot, such as a family wanting to have several graves in the same part of a cemetery, or to move the coffin or urn to a completely different cemetery, often out of the area when families relocate. Altermatt said she can only remember there being one issue with a gravesite that resulted in the family agreeing to a plot prior to the burial.

Exeter District Cemetery did not return phone calls as of press time.

Former manager

The board did not cite any reasons why it decided to fire former district manager Lenore Castaneda, but the decision to terminate her employment in April came just a month after the dual disinterments in March.

The board reported out on two closed session items at its April 22 meeting. One was a 5-0 vote to accept the resignation of district manager Leonor Castaneda and approve a severance package of $5,000. The board announced on April 7 it had placed Castaneda on paid administrative leave and was scheduled to terminate her following a Lubey hearing she had requested. Deputy County Counsel Aaron Zaheen, acting attorney for the cemetery district, said Lubey hearings are a chance for an employee to clear their name of any wrongdoing prior to being terminated but after a recommendation to remove the employee has been made. Lubey hearings are typically held for terminations involving issues such as dishonesty, immorality, corruption, excessive force, sexual misconduct, theft, disloyalty to the government, association with subversive organizations, chronic alcoholism or drug use, racism, or lack of intellectual ability, although the board did not outline issues for termination due to privacy laws.

Castaneda’s leave was scheduled to end on April 16 but was extended to the April 22 meeting.

“At this point, the bulk of the work has been done and we need to move forward,” Avila said.

The other was a 5-0 vote to deny the claim filed by Jesse Martin, who was among those who criticized Castaneda for being rude and treating some families differently when it came to burial restrictions due to COVID-19 safety protocols. After Martin’s daughter Jessica died on March 18, 2020, he and his family were informed they would not be allowed to get out of their cars during the March 27, 2020 burial. 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.”

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