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People impatient with woman volunteer, 62, digging grave by herself

Prouty takes heat for trying to keep cemetery in shape

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People impatient with woman volunteer, 62, digging grave by herself

Volunteer Bill Good cuts the lawn at East Union Cemetery.

ROSE ALBANO RISSO/The Bulletin/


POSTED April 6, 2009 4:40 a.m.
The woman visiting her son’s grave site was not too pleased. She did not like what she was hearing from Evelyn Prouty, one of the regular volunteers who have taken it upon themselves to keep the historic East Union Cemetery from turning into a weed patch after the state revoked its business license and seized its endowment care funds.

The complicated details surrounding this unfortunate turn of events with the cemetery management is another story all together and one that has been widely chronicled by the news media, including the Bulletin, since last summer when the whole fiasco unraveled.

This story is about the many little-known facts about what has been going on behind the scenes, why this sacred ground that is the resting place of many of this area’s pioneers and community leaders has not turned into a pitiful eyesore despite the lack of funds, and how a handful of caring and dedicated individuals have wrought something that is nothing short of a miracle and continues to do so despite the many unpleasant things they have been subjected to in the last few months as illustrated by this particular anecdote that took place not too long ago at the cemetery.

Prouty was explaining to the visitor, as she has done so many times since last summer to many others, the new policy about bringing flowers to loved ones’ grave sites. The rule was put in place by the new cemetery board because of their dire financial situation. They had to lay off the two cemetery caretakers so the maintenance of the cemetery had been left to the mercy of volunteers like Prouty, her husband Bill Good who happens to be the president of the new cemetery board, and a handful of dedicated and concerned people in the community.

Mementoes left and strewn around the grave sites such as statues and planters make it doubly hard, if not three or four times as hard and as long, for volunteer workers to mow the grass. So the cemetery board through the volunteers have been asking families and friends of loved ones buried there to assist in the property’s maintenance by simply abiding to this rule. But there had been a handful like the aforementioned visitor who turned their grief into anger toward the unfortunate messenger of the grave site-flower policy. Prouty and Good go to work at the cemetery more times than all the other volunteers, doing general cleanup when they are not digging graves and burying the dead, so they are often the target of the unpleasant reactions from some visitors.

On this particular day, the still grieving mother verbally lashed out at Prouty who was trying to explain the cemetery’s predicament.

“You don’t know what it’s like to lose a child,” the mother said.

“Yes, I do,” Prouty answered.

“How do you know?”

Prouty, with some hesitation, informed her that she had lost a daughter just a few months before.

“How did she die?” asked the mother whose son died about two years ago.

“Suicide,” Evelyn said.

“Sounds like bad parenting to me,” the woman responded.

I asked Prouty how she reacted to the callous remark.

“I just turned away,” Prouty said in a small voice, the hurt so palpable in her voice.

On a side note, the untimely death of her daughter happened the day before her scheduled informative talk about the history of the cemetery followed by a tour around the cemetery. She had just found out a few days before from Ken Summers, one of the board members of the Manteca Historical Society, about the impending doom coming down upon the cemetery association. As the director of the historical society and museum, and in cooperation with the society’s board, Prouty hoped this informative gathering would make the community cognizant of the historical value of this cemetery enough to mobilize local citizens to save it from becoming an abject wilderness right in the center of town. The meeting at the cemetery was such a success they ran out of chairs for the many guests, and Prouty’s lecture went without anyone getting a hint of the tragedy that had just befallen her family. She did it all with grace under pressure.
 
Many still not aware of cemetery problems

Despite all of the cemetery’s widely publicized problems with the state Funeral and Cemetery Bureau, what’s being done about it, and how a handful of concerned citizens have rallied around saving and preserving this historical burial ground founded in 1872, there are still some who do not know what’s going on. Consider, for example, an e-mail sent to the Manteca Bulletin just last week.

Alfredo Hernandez wrote on March 29: “I went by the Union Cemetery and a plot was not filled. It seemed as though it was a new burial. ...What is that all about!!!! Concerned citizen... doesn’t anyone care???? The family must be devastated. That would bother me. That my loved one was not taken care of. Could you let me know if there is something wrong with this picture?”

For an explanation, I turned the above inquiry over to Prouty.

“Yes, Bill Good and I did have a burial Saturday afternoon (March 28) at East Union Cemetery,” Prouty replied.

The grave in question, she said, was dug Friday. “We often dig a grave a day or two in advance due to other commitments,” she explained, adding, digging a grave can easily take all day.

That’s because the volunteer crew does the job literally by hand with shovels with the help of a backhoe that is older than the dirt they are digging and which had seen better days.

For the burial in question, set-up was done on Saturday morning. That part of the job, which includes getting all the chairs out and arranging them around the grave, takes about two hours.

But here’s what happened that day. While they were doing all the work Saturday morning, Good got sick and had to go home. Normally, there are two other volunteers they can call to come and help. However, this weekend, both extra hands were unavailable. Leon Sucht was on vacation, and Victor Gully was helping at another fundraiser.

That left the 62-year-old Prouty alone to do the burial. She managed to finish setting up and waited for the family and hearse to arrive. They finally got there about 3:45 p.m. By that time, she had been at the cemetery since 8 o’clock that morning.

She picks up the story from here.

“After I lowered the casket in the ground, the family left. I then tried to remove the lowering straps from under the casket but was unable to do so, after more than an hour of trying. With the straps still under the casket, it was impossible to place the lid on the vault. Rather than leave the grave open, I covered it with plywood and placed flowers on top. Exhausted, I arrived home shortly after 6 p.m. The following morning, we called another volunteer and between the three of us (Good, Prouty and the other volunteer) we were able to remove the straps and cover the grave.”

Since the cemetery’s problems began, volunteers have completed 16 burials. “This was the only time we did not have the grave covered within the hour. Perhaps it was because a 62-year-old woman was doing it alone,” Prouty said.

Those who have not read or heard the earlier stories about the cemetery might ask why burials are taking place when the cemetery’s business license has been revoked and hence, cannot sell plots.

“People must remember that we are volunteering to bury those who have died and have previously purchased plots at the cemetery,” Prouty explained.

Furthermore, “We have had no training and are not paid. We do the best we can under the circumstances. This burial required 34 hours of my time over a three-day period. The work is difficult at best but we do it for the families,” Prouty said.

“Should someone drive past the cemetery and see a pile of dirt, it does not mean the grave is occupied. It means we are preparing for a burial, perhaps that day or even a day or two later. Volunteers are always welcome to come and help,” she added.
 
How you can help the cemetery

While the cemetery is technically a business, it is still run by the cemetery association which means every family with a member buried there is part of the association. In the strictest sense, all families are members of the association and must be involved in maintaining the cemetery. Under the unfortunate present circumstances, families would be expected to maintain their loved ones’ grave sites. Prouty and a few others have done just that. Prouty could have simply focused on her pioneer family’s plot. Louise Avenue was named after her great-great-grandmother Louisa. But she and husband Good have taken it upon themselves, along with several volunteers, to clean up the entire cemetery even to the point of bringing their own lawn mower and  Weedeater to do the job. Even with all the trouble they have gotten, and continue to receive, from some people.

Yes, said Prouty, there are people “who still come to complain that they cannot leave flowers; those who complain because the cemetery needs mowing; those who think we haven’t paid PG&E and that’s why we haven’t any water; those who complain that the city isn’t taking care of the cemetery (we again explain that the city doesn’t own it the complainers do); and those who accuse us of grave robbing because their dead flowers are in the garbage.

“Several have complained about the gophers, others are unhappy because we moved the garbage can. Most people who come to complain say they were unaware of any problems at the cemetery and ask why we didn’t write to all the families. Even if we had all the addresses, which we don’t, we don’t have money for postage.”

And that’s just a small portion of what their crew of volunteers go through on a typical week working a few hours a day at the cemetery.

“Mowing, which takes two people three days (to complete), is the easy part,” Prouty said.

In the wake of the cemetery’s ongoing predicament, a nonprofit Friends of East Union Cemetery was established. This group has been able to sponsor a few fund-raising efforts with the money going toward the maintenance of the cemetery. The list of people and businesses that have so far stepped up to the plate is too many to mention. But the group would be happy to receive any donations. For more information on how to become a member of the Friends and how to help, call 823-8533 or send donations to: Friends of the East Union Cemetery, PO Box 591, Manteca, CA 95336 with checks made payable to Friends of the East Union Cemetery. Donations are tax-deductible.

The pioneer cemetery is located on the southwest corner of Louise Avenue and North Union Road.

If you want to know more about the history of the cemetery, you can pick up a copy of Evelyn Prouty’s book, “Manteca: Selected Chapters From its History” at the Manteca Historical Museum, 600 W. Yosemite Avenue.
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