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Cemetery owner helping families outraged by removal of graveside momentoes

Story by Sharon Harrison
When Dewmill Enterprises bought the Cherry Valley Cemetery from the United Church of Canada about 18 months ago, owner Al DeWitt was keen to bring the sprawling, unkempt property up to standard – not just to comply with local bylaw regulations, but also to beautify the site and to make it the best it can be for the many families and friends who visit.

He didn’t expect a wave of ire from local family members who found personal momentoes missing when they visited their loved ones’ resting places this spring.

Along with the County Road 10 property, DeWitt manages several cemeteries in Prince Edward County and the Quinte area and is no stranger to the cemetery business, with almost 20 years experience under his belt.

In the spring of 2019 when DeWitt took over the cemetery, he began cleaning it up and enforcing the bylaws he must abide by as a cemetery owner. He posted the most relevant (and mostly frequently broken) sections of the bylaws on two large signs at the site eight months ago, which he says people can’t fail to see when they are entering or leaving the cemetery.

The final clean-up came about a week ago.

“Mother’s Day is coming and I want to make sure everyone was compliant because that is a very emotional time in a cemetery,” said DeWitt. “We gave them 14 months to come into compliance; we didn’t just tell people you can’t do this or you can’t do that. We are telling them what they can do, and asking them to be respectful.”

He said people are allowed to have personalized family mementoes for their loved ones’ plots, something he says he fully understands. “Mementos must be inside of a concrete-lined flower bed in front of your stone, not behind it,” he said. “You don’t own the rights to the plots behind it; you only have the interment rights from the headstone to the east, which is the front of your stone.”

When several people recently posted unkind comments on social media (several of whom were contacted for this story, but did not respond), DeWitt felt he needed to set the record straight and clear up any misunderstanding.

“Others have subsequently met with me who had originally posted negative comments and now they are very happy,” he said.

“I didn’t tell anyone they weren’t allowed to have their stuff, and I didn’t throw out their stuff or throw it onto a pile,” he said, referring to some of the recent comments posted on Facebook. “That is absolutely false; it’s absolutely not true that all the mementoes have to be removed from the cemetery. The accusations are not true.”

“I in no way want to be disrespectful to anyone’s site, and I have been doing this a long time, and sometimes people are upset no matter what I do and I feel bad about that.”

Some items were removed to enable grass cutting and maintenance to safely take place, and to ensure personal items weren’t damaged by maintenance equipment.

DeWitt says those items were neatly laid out alongside his shed so people could retrieve them.

“I didn’t put that last clean-up inside my garage because people wouldn’t be able to come get it if I’m not there,” he said. “People came through and started getting stuff and started rummaging and throwing stuff around; there was stuff broken and somebody actually took stuff that didn’t belong to them.”

His one request is items must be put inside a contained flower bed. DeWitt says while people can build their own, he is happy to build a flower bed for people using landscape stone, at no cost.

“I am paying for the stone; we will build it for you for free, my time and labour, with a choice of two colours, of good quality landscape stone,” he says. “All I ask if people build it look after it, don’t let it weed up and grow over. You look after what’s on the inside and I promise I’ll look after what’s on the outside.”

DeWitt has built a dozen flower beds in recent days for different families.

“They came in, spoke with me, realized these were ones who had their stuff taken out,” he says. “I split the stones right there and measured them to make sure so they could put their stuff back inside the flower beds; they will look after it and they were as happy as can be.”

He says when people buy the rights to an interment plot people don’t have the right to do whatever they want to do.

He said dead trees and overgrown trees have to be pulled out, but said they encourage flowering shrubs, either dwarf or keep them pruned.

“People must look after them; I’ll show you where and how,” noting neighbouring gravestones should not be compromised by roots.

“The planting of trees in your family plots should never have been allowed,” he said. “We’ve got trees beside headstones that are uprooting the stones and the roots are growing into other people’s plots. We have to be able to look after the cemetery properly.”

“Remember, it’s not just about you and your stuff, it’s about everybody else’s too; there are thousands of people there: just follow the rules and I will help you do it, that’s all I’m asking.”

Dewitt says he was simply bringing people into compliance.

His company is licensed through the Bereavement Authority of Ontario, as is every other cemetery in the province.

“All cemeteries have bylaws, and most of them are fairly similar, but I get asked, ‘Why all these changes and new bylaws?’. These bylaws have been in place for decades, 30, 40, 50 years, but they were never enforced and people come and do whatever they like in the cemetery.”

Toppers are allowed, says DeWitt.

“We encourage people to wire them on because the wind will take them off, and if you need a hand doing it, I’ll do it for you and I’ll help you, or my son will help you. We are there to work with you.”

His goal was to bring everyone into compliance before Mother’s day, this Sunday.

“We have been trimming trees, fixing roads, building proper fences. I know the neighbours are happy not to have the stuff blowing into their yards.”

He also cautioned about what is brought into the cemetery, and if it’s valuable, to use common sense.

“Although we don’t like to think people will take things or vandalize, it happens,” he says.

“Every chance I see people and get a chance to talk to people, I introduce myself and I talk to them about the cemetery and what we can do.”

He said everyone is in this together.

“It is all of our loved ones’ resting place across the country; we all have buried loved ones, so it’s about doing things together, keeping things compliant, respectful, neat and tidy.”

“I take this to heart and so does my wife,” says DeWitt. “We have been in the cemetery business a long time, and our oldest son works for us full time in the cemeteries.”

“Sometimes you feel a bit beat up that you’ve let someone down and really hurt someone. Their feelings are real, but I don’t think it’s our right to break the rules, no matter in society where we go.”

For anyone with questions or concerns about the Cherry Valley Cemetery, Al DeWitt can be reached at 613-921-1323.

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  1. kathy baker says:

    I would like to say I really appreciate all that is being done to cleaning up a mess that has slipped through the carpet for too many years. yes people are upset, but it just goes to show, how some get away with not doing the job they are suppose to do by following the rules of the cemetery. I myself have chatted with Allan , i like how he is helping the people with putting the flower things where they should be. thank you sir great job well done.

  2. Angela says:

    History repeats itself. Approximately 30 years ago a caretaker at Cherry Valley began removing floral saddles and wrought iron hooks for hanging baskets. Plot holders were outraged and eventually the rules were relaxed. This sounds like the same old story. Some people are inconsiderate and add silk flowers, solar lights, figurines and all manner of items without stopping to think that it may create maintenance problems for the caretaker, in addition to looking overdone. Caretakers can’t be blamed for trying to tidy up the plots. However, Mr. DeWitt is offering a piece of poor advice. Floral saddles should never be wired to a stone. The wire rusts and the result is rust marks on the monument that can never be removed. Bare metal should never touch the stone. Plastic twine is a much safer choice.

  3. Karen says:

    My family appreciates the efforts to tidy up the cemetery and bring it within the rules and guidelines set out. There are some that have too many things cluttering the gravesites. This gives the cemetery an unkept, messy look. As far as tree planting goes, would this not have been outlined in the fine print when the gravesite was purchased? It makes total sense about the roots causing issues with others sites. It just comes down to common sense and consideration for others. Thank you for your efforts.

  4. Judy Silverberg says:

    Thank you. You have to be careful what you believe on social media. I’m glad you cleared things up.

  5. Sabrina says:

    Continue your kindness Mr Dewitt ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  6. shawn cowan says:

    i partially believe some of this , there was nevera issue untill the cemetary and the church and and the hall, were sold, i know last year we as a family had a 75 dollar tree planted at our dads grave in mememory of our oldest brother and it was pulled out , so who gona come good fro the 75 bucks , and the way the sale of the grave yard went was pretty quiet , never heard nothing untill signs went up .

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