Cemetery mix-up resolved in favor of all parties

Gravesites donated to grieving family

Keywords: Death and dying,

Owners of a double-booked grave site at the Cortez Cemetery have decided to not accept compensation or pursue legal action.

Instead, Bob and Lorraine James, of Farmington, N.M., have decided to donate their lots to a grieving family.

The James’s had been steadfast in correcting a cemetery error they discovered on Memorial Day. A cremation burial had placed on a portion of two burial lots they purchased for themselves in 2001.

Last week, they had a change of heart.

“We try and live our lives by what is right, not who’s right,” stated Lorraine James. “We would like to deed our remaining one-and-a half plots to the family” who lost a son buried there.

When informed by phone, the recipient, who asked not to be identified, said it was the first she had heard of the offer and would accept it.

“We are grateful for the generous gesture. It touches my heart, and is very kind after all that we have been through,” she said.

The Cortez cemetery has been struggling with incomplete and incorrect records for the older part of the cemetery, established in 1892.

Cemetery officials admitted to the unintentional mix-up and apologized, blaming it on confusing records that were misinterpreted by a new manager. The full-body gravesites purchased by the Jameses were labeled in the records with letters, typically used to indicate a cremation site. Because of the labeling error, the site was resold for a cremation burial.

As compensation, the district offered a settlement to the Jameses that included buying back the plots at the current rate, giving them two nearby full-burial plots, and covering burial and closure costs of about $900.

In a statement, the Jameses said the offer was generous, but they declined, opting instead to deed the remaining one-and-a-half lots to the family who buried a young son there.

“We do not want, nor will we seek further redress in this issue,” the Jameses said.

Cemetery board member Jim Bridgewater said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the counter offer.

“They went above and beyond and their understanding of an emotional situation is very appreciative,” he said.

Bridgewater said he will make a motion at the next meeting that the Jameses be granted any two burial plots within the cemetery.

“I feel that our offer should be honored by our board and future boards should they decide to be buried here in the future,” he said.

As a result of the mix-up, cemetery officials enacted a moratorium on selling additional plots from the older part of the cemetery in Blocks 1, 2 and 3.

“To avoid future problems, we will not sell there,” said manager Chris Carlson. “We just don’t have good records for that older section.”

Local historian June Head, a former cemetery board member, is conducting an inventory of the 5,500 grave sites at Cortez Cemetery. The survey process involves comparing deeds with the cemetery records and the grave location.

“Just talking with families about where their loved ones are buried has cleared up a lot,” Head said.

Considering how old the cemetery is Head “defends the record keeping” and said efforts are being made to find and correct mistakes.

Even before the area was a cemetery, people were buried in that location, she said. Some headstones from the late 1800s were made of sandstone and have physically eroded away. Another challenge, original records from 1892 to 1933 are missing.

“The records are good in the newer sections,” Head said. “I could see why there are mistakes. We’re not the only cemetery that has record-keeping challenges.”

The Jamese always emphasized that one reason for their efforts was to prevent the mistakes from happening again.

“We see the cemetery district making every attempt to get the records straightened out and that is the most important thing,” stated Lorraine James.

jmimiaga@cortezjournal.com