James Daugherty told commissioners that his family has several plots in Hilldale Cemetery, including one reserved for him.
"We use artificial flowers. I think artificial flowers are beautiful," Daugherty said. "I would not like to see Hilldale turn into a dark, drab, unattractive place. I bought these plots. Why can't I put on those graves what I want to celebrate my loved ones' lives? That should be my prerogative, not some committee's."
Under the rules being considered by the commission, artificial arrangements are only permitted from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15, and on Easter and Memorial Day. This is the same rule that's been on the book for years, it just hasn't been enforced.
Actually, not much of the "new" cemetery rules is really new. Rather, it represents the consolidation of existing rules, with a few additions, into a 24-page document that spells out what is and isn't allowed. The existing rules were contained in at least three different documents, which led to confusion and the selective enforcement of some of the regulations.
The city's Cemetery Committee, led by consultant James Carman, spent 18 months coming up with a master plan to make Bellevue and Hilldale more respectful, attractive and inviting spaces, both for mourning families and residents.
Expansion, new entrances and buildings, and improved landscaping are all part of the long-range plan the commission approved two weeks ago. A clarification of the rules was needed to help insure the nicer cemeteries envisioned in the master plan could take shape.
Mimi Becker, chairwoman of the Cemetery Committee, said the problem with artificial flowers and other arrangements is they are usually not maintained and end up scattered by wind around the cemetery grounds.
"There are many times I go to the cemetery and I pick up bits and pieces of flags and stuffed toys and Christmas decorations," Becker said. "Some people are good about picking up, but many, many are not."
Gayle Ganns and Imogene McGowan told commissioners that artificial flowers are part of their family traditions. Both women said they visit the graves often and take care to make sure the arrangements are of high quality and kept in good order. Ganns said it would be "a slap in my face" if artificials were restricted, and McGowan got emotional talking about the displays she makes for her child's grave.
Mary Stith Hamlin, funeral director at Stith Funeral Home, said the rules should be softened to consider the needs of grieving families.
"When your child is at the cemetery and the only way you can celebrate their birthday is to put balloons and decorations on their graves, it's almost inhuman" to prohibit it, Hamlin said.
Commissioner Janet Hamner said it is important to put the guidelines in place and that people will adapt to them as they started seeing improvements as the master plan is implemented.
Testing the regulations
"These regulations should be tested and given the opportunity for success," Hamner said. "We have to breed a culture of what our cemeteries will look like and people will conform to them."
Mayor Hugh Coomer suggested that the use of artificial arrangements could be grandfathered in like existing benches, trees and bushes that run afoul of the cemetery regulations under consideration.
Carman, the consultant, said that was not the committee's intention, and City Attorney Ed Hays cautioned that grandfathering in too many exceptions would make the rules impossible to enforce.
Commissioner Kevin Caudill wondered "who will be the policer of these policies" and if cemetery workers would have to remove all of the artificial arrangements as soon as the updated regulations are approved. "From a practical standpoint, if you pass this, that's what we will have to do," said City Engineer Earl Coffey.
Commissioner Terry Crowley finally suggested the rules be sent back to the Cemetery Committee to see if some language can be included that allows for artificials to remain as long as they are maintained.
Becker said the committee might find that difficult because it would be left up to the subjective judgment of someone to decide whether an arrangement is an eyesore. "Now you're putting it on someone to get yelled at," she said.
The Cemetery Committee will meet May 10 to consider changes. Meanwhile, copies of the master plan and updated rules will be available at City Hall for people to study.
"We're in a transition process," Coomer said. "We're making progress. We need to all work together on it."