Widows seethe over a surprise headstone shuffle

  • Article by: JAMES ELI SHIFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 24, 2009 - 6:49 AM

A Brooklyn Center cemetery moved their husbands' headstones to make room for another grave.

Born on the same date two years apart, Jim Emery and Leroy Edeburn worked together, traveled together, raised their families together. In death, they were joined as well, resting in Mound Cemetery in Brooklyn Center with head-to-head monuments, with only a patch of grass between them.

Then, on July 4, Billie Edeburn, 77, visited her late husband's grave and saw the change immediately. Both headstones had been moved about four feet, in opposite directions, to make room for a new grave in between.

She got on the phone with Emery's widow, Marlene, also 77.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is desecration of a grave site," Marlene Emery said this week, standing by two dirt patches where the headstones used to be. "We picked it out together. That meant something to me. My husband knew where he was going to be buried."

Dan Kantar, the cemetery manager, regrets that he didn't give the families some advance warning of the tombstone shuffle. But he said the markers are now in their proper place, after years of encroaching on a plot reserved for someone else. The remains were never moved -- just the stones, because otherwise the new marker would look as if it was shoehorned in.

As Kantar learned, correcting an error in a cemetery can have unexpected consequences for the living. "I can understand their concern," he said.

"We're dealing with death," Kantar said. "I've been at this for 17 years. People get very emotional."

Indeed, Kantar's explanations haven't assuaged two families' anger over the severing of their symbolic bond.

"It was horrible, it was devastating, to have someone mess with your father's grave," said Karen Edeburn, Leroy's daughter.

Jim Emery and Leroy Edeburn became friends in 1953. They drove trucks for a North Dakota company that delivered new vehicles, and eventually moved into new positions at the firm, working side-by-side on the yard of the Ford factory in St. Paul. They bought houses a few miles apart in Brooklyn Center, bowled in the same league and their families voyaged together to Canada, Mexico, Europe.

Mound Cemetery, founded in 1862, is a tranquil expanse of modest monuments and shade trees, quiet but for the chirping of birds and the traffic drone of Interstate 94. In 1997, knowing his time was short, Jim Emery decided to pay $600 for a plot. He died later that year. In 2001, the Edeburns put down $800 for a plot there as well. Leroy Edeburn died that same year.

His headstone faced east, his friend's faced west. On each stone, their wife's name is already chiseled.

This week, the two widows stood over the plots where they would lie for eternity. "She's supposed to be at my head," Marlene Emery said, pointing to Billie Edeburn. When they visited the cemetery, as they did regularly, the women had no reason to suspect that anyone would come between them.

Kantar said the placement of the two stones was a mistake by a previous caretaker. The plot in between Emery and Edeburn had been purchased in 1979. Its owner, Dennis Snook, recently approached Kantar about placing a "pre-need" stone on his plot, and that's when the error was discovered, he said.

"When we are confronted with a situation like this, we have to move stones to the proper location," Kantar said. In order to do so, the cemetery had to remove the bronze veterans plaque that was at the other end of Leroy Edeburn's grave. Kantar said it had been improperly installed without a concrete base, making it vulnerable to scrap metal thieves, so it was placed in storage. As a concession to the family, he has offered to set it in concrete at no charge to them.

He thought he would have time to notify the families by letter before the change was discovered. He won't make that mistake again.

"I don't know what else I can do," he said.

Snook, 81, knew something like this might happen. After buying his plot in 1979, next to the grave of his father, Snook noticed that the rows of stones were uneven. He pestered the cemetery management for years to ensure there was still room for him. Not until Kantar took over management of the cemetery a few years ago did the encroaching markers finally get moved. Snook had no idea that would cause a brand new problem.

He's feeling good these days, so he's not expecting to occupy that patch of dirt just yet. Still, Snook doesn't want any trouble when the end finally comes.

"I would like to have it all set up so my kids don't have to monkey with something," he said.

News researcher Jane Friedmann contributed to this report.

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    The Minnesota Association of Cemeteries, a nonprofit group, mediates disputes between families and cemeteries. Ron Gjerde, an association official, can be reached at (612) 822-2171. whistleblower > Get involved! Feel like you're getting ripped off? Got a problem in your neighborhood? Contact us at whistleblower@startribune.com or 612-673-4271. Read more and sound off at startribune.com/whistleblower.
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