Cemetery mistakes continue to rise from the grave

Tulare Public Cemetery District disinters another body buried in the wrong plot in 2018, making at least six botched burials in as many years

TULARE – The past mistakes of the Tulare Public Cemetery District continue to rise from the grave.

Earlier this month, it was revealed the cemetery had to dig up another body, known as a disinterment, after it was discovered the person was buried in the wrong grave. Edwina Santos died on March 11, 2018 and was buried at the North J Street Cemetery in Tulare on April 20, 2018, according to her obituary.

When the family went to make arrangements to bury her husband, Gary Santos, in September 2021, it was discovered Mrs. Santos was buried in Row X of Block C of the North Cemetery but the family plot was located one row over, Row W of Block C, but in the same grave number, according to the cemetery’s paperwork. Before Mr. Santos could be buried in the dual plot, the cemetery district had to disinter Mrs. Santos and rebury her in the correct grave on Sept. 18, 2021. Mr. Santos died on Sept. 3, according to Peers Lorentzen Funeral Services, and was buried on Sept. 20, two days after the disinterment and reburial of his wife, according to the cemetery district.

This is the sixth person buried in the wrong plot in as many years and the fifth disinterment during that same time, as one of the families involved did not request their loved one be reburied in the correct plot and instead asked for a full refund of the burial fees, according to district records. That is more mistaken burials than all other cemeteries in Tulare County, which had a collective zero people buried in the wrong graves in the last 20 years.

Tulare Cemetery District’s analogue records are, however, difficult to search. 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 disinterment.

The latest disinterment wasn’t known to the public until the cemetery district board’s Dec. 2 meeting. During a discussion about the district’s financials for September and October, Trustee Alberto Aguilar asked about why the district issued check No. 2931 to Peers Lorentzen Funeral Service for $5,000 on Sept. 24, 2021. Cemetery Board Chair Xavier Avila later confirmed $4,500 of the check was for a new casket, which was damaged during the disinterment, and $500 for labor.

“That was for a disinterment,” district manager Clara Bernardo said.

“We had another disinterment?” Aguilar replied in disbelief. He later voted against approving the financials because he said he was not aware of the disinterment.

Audit Committee member Linda Maloy and Avila both said Aguilar was aware of the disinterment. Avila said the disinterment was discussed during a closed session of a previous meeting.

The issue was brought up again by the board on Dec. 21. Aguilar maintained he was not aware of the disinterment until he asked about the check, a clear violation of California Health and Safety Code 9064 (a)(2) which states the board of trustees must maintain accurate and current records of “All remains interred in cemeteries owned by the district, including the name of each person, his or her age at the time of death, place of death, date of interment, the interment plot, and the name and address of the funeral director.”

“Why is this information being kept secret from us? Or of certain board members, I should say,” Aguilar said. “It sickens me! Why aren’t the rest of us made aware?”

Avila continued to argue that Aguilar was aware of the disinterment and that he was in attendance at the Sept. 23 meeting when it was discussed. Official minutes of that meeting confirm Aguilar was present as does a video of the meeting recorded by local activist Alex Gutierrez posted on the Facebook page for Caring Cause, a group originally formed in 2016 to raise awareness about neglect of the grounds at the Tulare cemeteries. The only item on the closed session agenda for that meeting was “Conference with Legal Counsel—Significant Exposure to Litigation.”

Deputy County Counsel Aaron Zaheen, who is the district’s attorney, called for the board to go into closed session if they were going to discuss a previous closed session item. After readjourning to open session, Avila made the following statement: “I would like to make a statement, that it has been determined that Alberto Aguilar was present for the closed session item for the meeting on Sept. 23. I think it is important that the public understands you were at the closed session,” he said to Aguilar.

Hold harmless

Avila opened the Dec. 21 meeting by addressing statements made in a local newspaper and online about how the Santoses’ next of kin, siblings Randy and Keri Santos, were forced to sign an “authorization and release” agreement before the district would move their mother’s body to the correct plot and that the wording of the release meant they were unable to sue the district for burying her in the wrong plot. That section of the agreement reads as follows: “Undersigned, on behalf of himself represents that they have disclosed all persons that are the next of kin to the cemetery and agrees to release, indemnify and hold harmless Funeral Home, Cemetery, Vault Company, their agents, employees, and parent and successor companies, from any liability, including reasonable attorney’s fees, for any and all distress, illness, psychological injury and any damages resulting from viewing the Procedure. By signing below, Undersigned acknowledges and agrees to all of the terms and conditions of this Disinterment Authorization Form.”

Avila said the wording in the form is meant to preclude the family from filing a lawsuit over the actual disinterment, but does not inhibit the family’s ability to sue over the initial burial mistake. In an interview after the meeting, he pointed out additional language on the next page which acknowledges “offensive odors or highly unpleasant sights or conditions are a possible part of the procedure,” meaning the act of digging up the casket and then reburying it. It also discuses hazards of being present during a disinterment, such as “machinery in operation.”

“As a matter of fact, that family still has legal recourse to sue,” Avila said. “The document they signed was for the disinterment.” The attorney agreed the document was specifically for the disinterment. The need for the agreement came into play at the September disinterment, when the backhoe used to dig up the casket damaged the concrete vault and broke the wooden casket, according to the agreement.

Better form

The form was created by district manager Clara Bernardo, who was hired in July to replace Leonore Castaneda. The former manager was fired by the board in April after a faulty four and a half years in that position which included a Tulare County Civil Grand Jury investigation reporting antiquated bookkeeping practices, inaccurate and lost payroll documents, poor accounting of its endowment care fund and, more recently, a dual disinterment in March. The Santos interment is now the third time someone was buried in the wrong grave under Castaneda’s tenure as district manager, none of which included the proper paperwork.

The cemetery district manager can only issue a permit for disturbing remains if a consent form has been signed by the deceased’s spouse, children, parents or siblings under California Health and Safety Code section 7525. The only exemption is if the body is being exhumed by the coroner for a criminal investigation.

“If you look at previous disinterments and what happened there, the paperwork wasn’t filled out and here it was filled out,” Avila said. “All we can do is fix things and move forward.”

The district has not buried anyone in the wrong grave since it reinstituted a double verification protocol for identifying graves following a dual disinterment on March 8, 2021. At the next meeting on March 23, the board 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. Avila and boardmember Charlie Ramos were placed on the committee along with local citizens Sharon Crook and Vicki Gordon.

Gutierrez pointed out the committee had its first and only meeting so far on July 29. Avila said they appointed Ramos as chair but no other actions were taken by the committee. He did say there was some discussion about the forms used to record and review disinterments, which the district manager had since drafted, submitted to county counsel for review, finalized with proper language and used during the Santos disinterment. Avila said he expected the committee to meet after the first of the year.

“What we need to do is meet and look at what Clara is doing now and confirm that it has been followed through,” Avila said.

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