Loved one distraught over cemetery conditions

BUTLER CO. — A Butler County woman was distraught to find toppled tombstones and sinking graves when she went to visit her parents, who are buried at Rose Hill Cemetery.

“It’s wrong because you’re supposed to respect the dead,” said Judy Miller.

Miller went to the Rose Hill in March - just like she always does after the harsh winter. But this year, she said the conditions were worse than she’d ever seen them before.

“This is my mom’s (grave),” Miller said, pointing. “It was sinking. It was down about this far (motions about 6 inches).”

Her father’s grave was even worse. It had become detached from the foundation.

“It moves. It’s not attached to anything,” she said, shaking it. “I’m 73 years old, and I can move that headstone.”

Miller took her concerns to the cemetery owner, but she said he got belligerent.

“He told us to ‘blank’ off and flipped us the bird,” she said, still incredulous.

After that incident, the cemetery owner did fill in her mother’s grave with some dirt but did nothing to fix her father’s headstone.

“It’s heartbreaking to know that all these years everything was fine,” she said. “And all of a sudden, they’re caving in. And the headstones are being moved; they’re being knocked over.”

Widespread damage

11 Investigates checked out the property and saw, first hand, the problem was not isolated.

Grave after grave, dozens of them were tilting, tipped over and sinking. Some were knocked right off the foundation.

“It’s so upsetting. You can’t just let it go,” Miller said. “It’s not just my parents. It’s not just my family. It’s a lot of families in here. It’s a lot of military in here.”

There were also strange, dark patches around all the graves, where the grass was killed. 11 Investigates learned the cemetery sprayed weed killer to make it easier to mow around the headstones, but experts said that attempts to save time and money can have unintended consequences.

Unintended consequences of weed killer

Corky Donatelli is the owner of Fred Donatelli Cemetery Memorials in Ross Township. He has sold headstones for decades and has seen weed killers create lots of problems for cemeteries that try to use them.

“You have the vegetation around it. You kill it. Now that vegetation rots away, so you have a valley,” Donatelli said.

He said that gap between the headstone and ground leads to problems with freezing and thawing when water puddles in there.

“Water gets in. It freezes in the wintertime, and the earth starts to erode away at the concrete bonding agent between the two,” he said.

He said that as the earth erodes away, the stone gets loose and can start to move and slide.

Donatelli also said he’s seen several cemeteries try to use weed killer over the years to help cut maintenance costs, but all the ones he knows have stopped because it created so many problems.

11 Investigates confronted the owner

Rose Hill Cemetery owner, John Constantino, responded to a call from 11 Investigates and met us at the cemetery just minutes later.

He was not happy to see our camera.

“I’m not gonna be doing this,” Constantino said putting his hand up to the camera and starting to walk away.

We continued to ask questions, and he did talk with us. He acknowledged the cemetery has several tombstones toppled over and other problems. But he blamed them on the age of the cemetery, not poor care.

“The cemetery is 120 years old,” he said.

He did say he would be picking up the toppled headstones.

“What we’re gonna do is we’re going to start lifting them up and keep them straight up,” he told 11 Investigates.

As for fixing the ones that broke loose from their foundation, he said that is not his responsibility.

“We will fix it if the people want to pay to have it fixed,” Constantino said. “There is no warranty that lasts forever.”

Perpetual care

State law requires cemeteries to set aside 15% of the sale of each grave plot for perpetual care which, by definition, means “continuing forever.”

Miller said her family also paid extra maintenance fees for perpetual care and showed 11 Investigates the invoice for her sister’s grave.

“That money is gone. There’s no money for the perpetual care fund,” Constantino said.

Constantino said the cemetery business is struggling financially because fewer people are burying loved ones these days, turning instead to cremation.

But for Miller, that’s not a satisfactory excuse.

“When you have a perpetual care cemetery, you expect them to take care of it. That’s their job. That’s what they were getting paid for when you bought it,” Miller said.

11 Investigates asked Constantino whether he felt a sense of obligation to do more.

“You are the owner of the cemetery. And when somebody buys a plot from you, don’t you have some responsibility?” reporter Angie Moreschi asked. “To keep the grass cut,” he responded.

The rest, he said, is up to the families and companies that install the headstones.

As we continued to ask questions, Constantino got angry and stormed off, telling us, “Mind your own business.” He pointed to Miller and once again launched a choice word at her.

“Especially that b----,” he said.

A few minutes later, Contantino was back, saying he ended the maintenance program when he inherited the cemetery three years ago.

“I can change the rules. I can change the pricing. I can do anything I want,” he said.

When asked if he thought that was fair, he started to storm off. But he came back again and insisted the property is well kept.

“This place is maintained beautifully,” he said.

After talking with 11 Investigates for nearly an hour, Constantino did come around and offered Miller an apology.

“I want to apologize to you for swearing and being rude,” he said to her as she sat in her car. “This is a very hard place to take care of, and I don’t get paid very much for doing it, so I lose my temper sometimes,” he said.

Constantino promised to have the toppled headstones erected by Memorial Day and also put seeding on areas with dead grass.

Miller said she did feel better to have come to some peaceful resolution.

“I’m glad I can at least come up to visit my family and not worry,” she said.