Bill targets maintenance at for-profit cemeteries in Kent County

An overgrown grave site at Sharon Hills Cemetery near Dover. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — For-profit cemeteries may soon be compelled by law to meet county maintenance regulations or face penalties if they don’t.

Backed by a large contingent of Kent County legislators, House Bill 476 will likely be proposed before a House Housing and Community Affairs committee hearing next week and perhaps voted on soon afterward. The bill was introduced Wednesday at Legislative Hall.

During a public meeting at Kent County Levy Court in February, primary bill sponsor state Rep. Trey Paradee, D-Cheswold, pledged to take action supporting disgruntled plot holders at Sharon Hills Memorial Park in west Dover and the concerns of cemetery patrons in general. Citizens also raised complaints against Odd Fellows Cemetery in Camden-Wyoming and the Delaware Department of Justice opened case files on both to investigate consumer complaints.

Rep. Paradee noted that the bill does not apply “to cemeteries that are owned or operated by non-profits, churches, or veterans organizations. Of the 250 plus cemeteries in the state, only seven are for-profit operations.

According to the representative, “The purpose of the legislation is to empower the counties to enforce minimum standards of care and levy fines if cemetery operators are not fulfilling their end of perpetual care contracts. It is my hope that, working with the County, we can ensure that the graves of our loved ones will be maintained in a respectable condition in perpetuity.

“The owners of for-profit cemeteries need to understand that their obligation to maintain graves does not end when their customer’s check clears.

“After drafting the bill, I reached out to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for their support and was pleased that all of the Kent County legislators signed on as co-sponsors.”

According to the synopsis of HB 476, “The Act empowers each county to create regulations for the maintenance of for-profit cemeteries and to impose penalties upon those who do not abide by the maintenance regulations.”

Sharon Hills patron Cheryl Young, who teamed with Debbie Virdin to spur a grassroots campaign designed to bring attention to supposed problems at the burial grounds applauded the official push for maintenance oversight.

“I am so happy,” she said on Thursday. “I’m sorry it has taken this long but am confident that it will pass.”

Levy Court Commissioner Jim Hosfelt attended the winter meeting and has worked with Ms. Young and others to address and monitor the situation. He hopes to work with both customers and cemetery owners to establish acceptable maintenance standards to can be enforced.

“Obviously anything that allows for the County to officially react to issues is a big step and I look forward to working with Cheryl Young and cemetery owners to come up with something that benefits us all,” Mr. Hosfelt said.

The bill proposal listed several categories of maintenance regulations that can be included:

• Trimming or mowing grass, pruning shrubs, or trimming trees in and around the cemetery.

• Trimming or mowing grass to a level where flat markers of individual graves can be seen.

• Suppressing or removing weeds on cemetery property.

• Repairing or restoring improvements, structures, or fences on cemetery property.

• Maintaining cemetery roads accessible to the public and repairing road and sidewalk surfacing that presents safety hazards.

• Maintaining occupied crypts and niches properly sealed or closed.

• Refilling or resetting settled graves or markers annually or within 120 days of the cemetery operator or cemetery employees becoming aware of the issue.

• Repairing any grave markers, monuments, or burial vaults that are damaged by the negligence of the cemetery, the cemetery employees, or contractors employed by the cemetery.

• Supplying and emptying trash receptacles when filled.

• Maintaining public areas of the cemetery grounds and water features on cemetery property to ensure they are free of trash and debris.

• Providing clear delineation of undeveloped cemetery property with the use of signage.

• Controlling vermin and insect problems on cemetery property.

Ms. Young said that if cemeteries follow maintenance regulations “It makes it nice for families to see loved ones without trash cans overflowing, potholes, dead trees and missing property. It still has a way to go, but this is a huge step.

“I feel that all the sweat and loss of sleep we endured has been so worth it. If it can bring better experiences for the families involved then that means to world to me.”

Other stipulations referenced covered consumers receiving copies of specific maintenance standards prior to settling on a burial lot, which should be kept on file at the cemetery office and available upon request within 30 days.

Contents of the bill are available online at legis.delaware.gov.

State Sens. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, and Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, were listed as additional sponsors. Co-sponsors include Reps. Andria Bennett, D-Dover, Bill Carson, D-Smyrna, Sean Lynn, D-Dover, Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton, and Lyndon Yearick, R-Dover South.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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