Cemetery plot owners file complaint with state

James Fenton
Lizzy Sanchez and her son, L.C. Hemingway, 1, on Friday stand next to the grave of Lizzy's daughter, Princess RoseaLee Jane Mitchell, who was buried at Memory Gardens in June of 2014. A group of plot owners have been protesting conditions at the cemetery at 6917 E. Main St.

FARMINGTON — After nearly two years protesting what they say is poor upkeep and mismanagement of the grounds at Memory Gardens cemetery, unhappy plot owners are asking the state to intervene and force the cemetery's owners to make improvements.

On Monday, plot owner Denise Lovato sent a formal complaint accompanied by more than 2,200 signatures of support and 50 photographs documenting conditions at the cemetery to the state Regulation and Licensing Department's Financial Institution Division, asking for help.

Along with Lovato, 185 other co-complainants attached their names and addresses to the filing, which Lovato said weighed nearly a pound and cost $12.80 to mail.

Lovato said the group of dissatisfied plot-owners and supporters held off filing the complaint to give the cemetery owners a chance to make improvements, but no such action has occurred.

"We put it off because we were promised they would improve the grounds and we were told things would get better and it never did," Lovato said on Monday. "We also waited over the winter months. We're not just out here nitpicking. You used to drive by (the cemetery) and it looked beautiful."

Cemetery owner Jerry Guttman said in a phone interview on Friday that a state inspection last year by David Gee, industry manager for the New Mexico Financial Institutions Division, where the complaint was sent, found nothing wrong with the cemetery's grounds.

Guttman conceded the protesters' complaints originally had merit, but he said the cemetery grounds water system has been improved, since then.

"In the beginning, they were right," Guttman said. "We messed up with the water lines, but, you know, nothing is ever going to perfect."

The group first raised concerns over the cemetery in 2014, and, despite efforts to push for improvements, they said they feel their complaints over gopher holes, overgrown weeds, overturned and cracked headstones and patches of exposed dirt at the cemetery have been ignored.

Many of those same complaints were aired by members of the assembled group on Friday.

A dozen plot owners — members of the Memory Gardens Protesters Facebook group, which on Monday showed 2,210 members — gathered next door to the cemetery in the gravel parking lot of Calvary Chapel of Farmington to voice their frustration over what they say is a continuation of poor upkeep and a lack of improvements at the cemetery.

Troy Watson, whose parents are buried at Memory Gardens of Farmington, signs a petition protesting the cemetery's condition on Friday while standing in a parking lot next to the cemetery.

Members of the group said that while there have been some improvements — the lawns are greener overall, they said — an overhaul of the entire grounds remains an issue.

Lovato said the group's Change.org online petition has collected 1,976 signatures from supporters.

Denise and her husband Tony Lovato purchased eight plots at Memory Gardens in 2005. They said they formed the protest group to garner support after their direct complaints to cemetery management went unanswered. They said more than 2,300 group members use the social media site to post photographs they have taken of the grounds and plots. Members also use the site to promote meetings and share their frustrations.

Plot owner Julie Phillips said she hauls water to the cemetery from Kirtland for her son's grave. She and her family have also sodded her son's grave, work she said should be covered by Memory Gardens. But despite her family's efforts, she said the cemetery has failed to live up to its promise of perpetual care of the grounds.

Julie Phillips, seen on Friday, is among a group of people who have problems with the maintenance and management of the Memory Gardens cemetery in Farmington. She said, during an interview in a parking lot next to the cemetery, that the main issue for her is the removal of items she and her family placed on the grave of her son, who is buried at the cemetery. "It just breaks my heart to see this," Phillips said.

"It's not just the grass. It's everything," Phillips said. "They threw our (plot ornaments) in the trash. The graves are sinking, there's still the holes, there are weeds. They just don't care about the respect that we have for our loved ones buried there. There are a lot of angry people who care about their loved ones buried here and obviously (Memory Gardens owners) don't. This is a disgrace to our community."

Plot owner Sherry Vaden said her mother decided against being buried alongside her father, who is buried there, because of the "disgrace of the grounds there."

Serenity and Company entered the Farmington funeral services and cemetery market in November 2011, when the company bought several funeral homes and Memory Gardens, which were owned by Daniels Family Funeral Services of Albuquerque.

Serenity and Company owns Memory Gardens Cemetery in Concord, Calif., and nine cemeteries in Arkansas. The company also owns Brewer Lee & Larkin, Cope Memorial Chapel and Alternative Choice funeral homes in Farmington; Cope Memorial funeral home in Aztec; Cope Memorial Chapel in Gallup; Cope Memorial Chapel in Kirtland; and Tse Bonito Mortuary in Tse Bonito.

The group has voiced complaints over the extent of Serenity and Company's holdings in the area. They said that as soon as Daniels Family sold Memory Gardens to Serenity and Company, the quality of the grounds began declining.

"Since these guys took over, they've managed to screw it up pretty badly," Lovato said. She said that despite the group's roughly 21 months of complaining and trying to effect change at the cemetery, its members are not giving up.

"It's not just five of us with nothing to do but complain. I can think of 15 other things I'd rather be doing with my time," she said. "There's over 2,200 (protesters). It just shows you. It has affected hundreds of people. Hundreds of people are upset about it and they want it fixed. We're not going away. I'm sure that's what they had in mind, but we're not."

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