‘It’s just cruel’: Families upset after cemetery forces removal of graveside memorial items

Management of a local cemetery say they need to enforce bylaws, a move family members say is cruel and insensitive. Pat Taney reports.

By Pat Taney

For the past 14 years, Derrick Doobay has been visiting Pine Ridge Memorial Gardens on Church street in Ajax at least three times a week.

“My son, who suddenly died in a car accident is buried here,” he said. “My wife and I come here to find comfort; I feel close to him here.”

The Doobays own several plots of gravesites nearby where other family members rest. There are plants, bushes, flowers and mementos which the family maintains and checks on weekly.

“We take such pride in how we’ve maintained this,” he said. “At one point, years ago management would show my son’s grave to prospective buyers because they said it looked so beautiful.”

But when we spent time with the Doobays at the gravesites last week, they came with garbage bags and two cars.

“We are here to pack this all up now. I was told by the cemetery manager if we didn’t, all of this would be picked up by the groundskeepers and thrown out,” he said. “This is grief for me and my family, I cannot even express how much this hurts to do this right now.”

Erica Edwards, whose son also died suddenly years ago, says she wasn’t given that chance. Mementos she left at her son’s grave were gone when she went to visit two weeks ago.

“I placed a solar light which would shine on his name so it would illuminate at night,” she said. “When I came here, the light and other items I had here were all gone.”

She was able to track down a groundskeeper who directed her to a large pile of crosses, statues, flowers and various other items that had already been collected from other gravesites.

“All of this was just tossed aside,” she said. “I had to climb over all of this stuff to try and recover the things I left at the grave. I think the way management handled this was just cruel and insensitive.”

Families also question why some of the items removed, like lanterns, are similar to ones sold in the cemetery office.

“They sell lanterns that you can buy from them and place in the cemetery, so why are those allowed but not ones we put here?” Doobay asked.

Speakers Corner reached out to Arbor Memorial Inc., the company that owns and operates the cemetery grounds. They declined our request for an on-camera interview but did answer all of our questions via email.

They told us they understand the frustration this may cause families but this was all part of a long planned clean up of the cemetery grounds, saying for the past several years they’ve been lenient in regards to allowing many mementos at gravesites that have violated their bylaws.

“We understand that these decorative items can hold deep sentimental value to our visitors, however, with approximately 40,000 interments and the increasing number of families that we serve each year, we have received complaints about decorative items. It has become necessary for us to take this step in order to address safety concerns, conduct regular maintenance and ensure compliance with our cemetery bylaws.”

According to those bylaws, “Any article which is detrimental to efficient maintenance, or constitutes a hazard to machinery, employees or visitors, or is unsightly or does not conform to the natural beauty or design of the Cemetery, may be removed by the Company.”

The bylaws state the items can be removed by staff and will be held at the cemetery for collection. If after 14 days it is not collected, the cemetery reserves the right to dispose of them.

Management also told Speakers Corner, “We’ve been informing families for about six months leading up to our scheduled maintenance.”

They say during this time management was available for the community to answer any questions that they’ve had.”

But family members say those notices were small signs posted at the entrance of the cemetery.

“When I’m driving through here to see my son, I’m not looking at a small sign posted at the gates, I don’t feel this was handled properly,” Edwards said.

As for removing lanterns family members say are similar to ones sold at the cemetery office, the spokesperson said, “We offer families three types of lanterns that are appropriately designed and sized for our monuments. As part of the service we provide to families, and to ensure safety and proper placement, we affix the lantern to their monument.”

But family members are asking management to reconsider the new policy.

“I think as a community, we can come to a consensus of what’s okay and what’s not,” Nicholas Doobay, Derrick’s other son, said.

There’s nothing tacky or disrespectful at my brother’s grave, my dad takes care of it three times a week to make sure it stays beautiful. It’s just flowers and lanterns so at night we can see the grave.”

He said his heart broke when his parents received notice that their items violated bylaws.

“For me to come home and find my parents in tears because of something that happened to the ground where my brother has been buried for 14 years over decorations that are actually really beautiful and attractive is insane.”

Family members say up until now, this was, in their opinion, one of the best cemeteries in Toronto.

“It felt personal, seeing all the graves that had small items left behind that meant something to those who passed on like my son,” Edwards said. “Visitors have said to me, ‘I have never seen a cemetery like this, it is so beautiful.’ And now we are left with just stones and grass and I think it’s cruel.”

Management says the spring clean up will continue through the end of the month.

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