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Cemeteries give new meaning to ‘Decoration Day’

Memorial Day services

Catholic Cemeteries will hold Masses at 10:30 a.m. Monday at all of its locations.

Evergreen Cemetery will hold a service at 1:30 p.m. Monday.

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Updated: June 26, 2014 6:42AM



Stuffed teddy bears, lit candles, solar lights, coins. These are just a few of the things people leave at the gravesites of their loved ones these days, despite cemetery restrictions regarding such items.

As cemeteries await one of the biggest grave-visiting holidays of the year, workers also are bracing for the cleanup.

Once called Decoration Day, Memorial Day is a day to remember those who died in service to this country. But for many, it is also a day to simply remember all loved ones who have died. The holiday is akin to Mother’s Day in terms of cemetery visitors.

In their wake, bereaved family members will leave a lot more than flowers and flags.

“Cemeteries are for the living,” said Phyllis Burns, assistant to the executive directors at Catholic Cemeteries Chicago. “People want to decorate graves in a way that makes them feel good, that brings them closer to their loved one.”

For some, a floral display is enough to bridge that distance. Sandy Saunoris, owner of James Saunoris & Sons garden center located across the street from Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Alsip, said customers have been coming in all week asking for silk and fresh memorial cones, and red, white and blue arrangements.

“We started offering (plastic) signs with the words ‘Mom,’ ‘Dad,’ ‘Aunt’ or ‘Uncle’ on them about two years ago and they’ve become very popular,” she said.

But for a growing number of visitors, flowers simply aren’t enough, so they leave garden statues, pinwheels, taped photographs, even empty bottles of booze.

“We’ve seen everything — even a dead chicken,” Burns said. “It’s an ongoing situation.”

It’s a “situation” because such trinkets can detract from the open serenity of a cemetery, Burns said, as well as invade the space or sightlines of another grave. Plus, when people place items outside the required planter box, it makes mowing difficult, she said.

Catholic Cemeteries, which runs Good Shepherd in Orland Park, Resurrection in Justice and St. Anne in Park Forest, to name a few, lists rules regarding graveside decorations on its website, catholiccemeterieschicago.org.

“We allow people to place whatever they want in a planter box, no higher than 30 inches tall,” she said. “We like to keep everything contained and condensed because we’re mowing 300-plus acres. We can’t go around every grave decoration.”

Burns admits sometimes the cemetery workers turn a blind eye, especially in the baby section. But when things get out of hand, either because an item is oversized, weather-damaged or a safety hazard, a violation sticker imploring a family member to remove a particular item will be attached.

Often the memorials reflect an ethnic tradition.

“We have a serious problem with people leaving lit candles at St. Adalbert Cemetery (in Niles),” she said. “It’s a Polish custom but it’s also a fire hazard. But as soon as we remove them, they’re right back again.”

At Dignity Memorial Cemeteries, which runs Evergreen, Chapel Hill Gardens South, Oak Hill, Beverly and Lincoln cemeteries, the story is the same.

Beverly Coote, office manager at Evergreen Cemetery in Evergreen Park, said few comply with regulations limiting memorials to one item per gravesite.

“We see all kinds of stuff — pinwheels, crosses, stuffed animals, homemade things,” she said.

For Memorial Day, the office is handing out American flags to those who stop in. On Friday, children of employees also placed flags on the graves of veterans.

But they expect to find a deluge of items after Monday’s expected high turnout, which is why workers clean up after holidays, as well as each March and October.

Overdecorating also is an issue at family-owned Mount Greenwood Cemetery. But owner Paula Everett said that workers for the most part overlook it.

“It is a mowing issue and we do have restrictions, but I let them put whatever they want, most of the time,” Everett said.

Lately, she’s seen a lot of stuffed animals and Blackhawks memorabilia.

When items such as stuffed animals get weather-worn, Everett said, “We toss them.”

They had complaints recently that a memory book left at a child’s grave had gone missing.

“We learned that animals had been moving it,” she said. “So now the family members keep it in a plastic memory box at the grave.”



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