Former groundskeeper says management to blame for poor cemetery conditions

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Since last summer, more than 50 plot owners have vocally expressed their frustration over what they describe as a lack of upkeep at Memory Gardens cemetery.

Now, Byron Pope, a former groundskeeper who is also a plot owner at Memory Gardens, is speaking out about conditions there. And he says cemetery owners are to blame.

Pope said he was fired from the cemetery a month ago. He believes that was because he repeatedly asked the cemetery's management to supply the necessary equipment to rehabilitate the grounds.

Cemetery owner Jerry Guttman said in a phone interview that Pope is a disgruntled former employee who is just frustrated that he wasn't promoted while he worked at Memory Gardens.

"He is a nice man. His son is buried there," Guttman said. "He was just disappointed he wasn't promoted."

Guttman's company, Serenity and Company, bought the cemetery from Daniels Family Funeral Services in 2011.

Pope started working at the cemetery a year ago, he said, after he went into the office at Memory Gardens to complain about a prairie dog hole he found at his son's grave. His son, Andrew Pope, was a record-breaking Aztec football player who died in a car accident and was buried at the cemetery in 2012.

"I went in there throwing a hissy fit, and they asked me if I wanted a job," Pope said. "It was almost like therapy for me being out there. I thought, at least I can be out there with my kid."

During his year there, Pope said that he immediately saw that the grounds lacked proper aeration. But, he said, no matter how often he asked for proper equipment to begin the rehabilitation process, management refused. Evidence of neglect and mismanagement was everywhere, he said.

Pope said that among the problems that affected the cemetery grounds, dead expanses of grass, missing grass, weeds, gopher holes and cracked or damaged plot markers ranked high.

Pope said he used to work for San Juan County and for Aztec's public works department, and had direct experience combating prairie dog holes and operating tractors. But no matter how often he asked for more supplies, equipment or help, he said, cemetery management consistently refused his requests.

Guttman said a state inspection this year by David Gee, industry manager for the New Mexico Financial Institutions Division, found nothing wrong.

"David Gee came out twice this year and said, 'This is beautiful. I wish all my properties looked this good,'" Guttman said. "We've had nothing but wonderful responses overall from people. There are some challenges, of course, but we're not getting very many complaints. The property is very green. It's much better than it has been in the past."

Benjamin Cloutier, spokesman for the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department, verified in an email that two state officials from the department's Financial Institutions Division visited Memory Gardens in June in response to a complaint.

"FID received a complaint on May 31, 2015, stating that Memory Gardens was in a serious state of neglect," Cloutier said. "FID Deputy Director Christopher Moya and Industry Manager David Gee visited Memory Gardens on June 10, 2015, in response to the complaint. They found that the cemetery regularly performs the maintenance and landscaping needed to ensure the grounds are a respectful and well cared for resting place, and have no plans for a future visit at this time."

Gee, reached by phone on Thursday, referred all questions about the cemetery to Cloutier.

But Pope said the owners have consistently refused to make needed investments. He said that the cemetery needs more sprinklers. Management only approved the purchase of 20 sprinkler heads per year, enough to cover less than half of the eight acres there, he said.

And he said he pushed to purchase or rent equipment to aerate the grounds so that sodding and seeding the lawns would take hold, but his requests were ignored.

"I tried to do stuff and speak up, and they were really rude," Pope said. "It was an uphill battle the whole time."

Pope also said he received little help or support from two other groundskeepers when he pushed to make improvements at the cemetery.

"I worked my butt off trying to get that place to look nice, but there's only so much you can do whenever it's just you mainly doing stuff," he said. "But there's been problem after problem out there, and the owners don't seem to care. When something breaks down, they don't replace it."

Cloutier said the Financial Institutions Division "strives to ensure that the final resting places of those buried in cemeteries like the Memory Gardens are cared for with dignity and respect."

The agency is responsible for oversight of endowed care cemeteries, Cloutier said.

Endowed care cemeteries are privately owned cemeteries that register with the state to establish a trust fund that ensures the cemetery grounds are maintained, including mowing lawns, trimming shrubs and cutting trees, as well as the upkeep of cemetery roads, buildings, fences and other structures as prescribed in the New Mexico Endowed Care Cemetery Act, established in 1978.

On Thursday, Pope visited his son's grave at Memory Gardens and showed nearby plots in various degrees of disrepair or neglect. He pointed to a crumbling mausoleum and a bare patch of dirt left behind after the removal of a willow tree in the front section of the cemetery as places that needed immediate attention.

"When I worked here, I could see what had to be done, and I still see the same things that need to be done," Pope said. "It's sad. These people don't have any respect or compassion."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.