When Bob and Lorraine James visited the Cortez Cemetery over Memorial Day weekend, they were shocked to find a recent burial where they had bought two vacant grave sites for themselves.
The James purchased the side-by-side lots in 2001 in preparation for their death, and to provide their eight children with a place of remembrance. Their sites are adjacent to the grandparents of Bob James, who was born and raised in Cortez.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Lorraine James said when she saw that a cremation burial and headstone had been positioned in a portion of her reserved site. “It is very unsettling and hurt us deeply. It was a surprise because we had bought the plots.”
A deed had been issued, and the site in Block 2 was marked with two reserved stakes for the couple.
They thought they had taken care of their end-of-life affairs. They didn’t know that poor record-keeping at the cemetery would lead to a burial being misplaced in their spot.
The Jameses presented the problem during a Cortez Cemetery board meeting Wednesday evening, and board members acknowledged that a mistake had been made and that the cemetery had a history of mistakes.
“We inherited a lot of faulty bookkeeping,” said board president Howard Kaime. “That is not an excuse, but we will move forward with this the best we can.”
Conflicting and incomplete maps delineated areas for cremation and coffin burials led office manager Chris Carlson to position a 2012 cremation burial in the wrong place.
“I misunderstood the book and am very sorry,” Carlson said. “I assumed you had reserved cremation spots, which they are not.”
Records show the James purchased spaces 1A and 2A which are designated for 8-foot-long coffin burials.
Carlson offered nearby coffin burial sites to the Jameses as compensation, but they refused.
“I want my spot back,” Lorraine James said. “To me and my family it is hollowed ground.”
To give their children reassurance that their parents would be together after-death, the James conducted a festive ceremony at their purchased grave sites to bless it with happy memories.
“People might see this as kind of strange, but it is very important that our graves be a place of happy memories not sad ones,” Lorraine James said during a visit to the gravesite.
“We had an all-day celebration with all of our kids at the park. My husband and I met while dancing, so then we all came here, sang a song we wrote and danced on our grave with our children watching. It is a sacred place for our family, and we feel it has been stolen from us.”
“It is emotionally painful for us, and for the family of the person buried in the wrong spot,” Bob James said. “We want it corrected, but also we want corrective action to make sure it does not happen to someone else.”
It has been happening to others, including to Barbara and Leo Lewis. They took the Cortez Cemetery to court after a burial was placed in their purchased plot.
“When you buy a plot, you should get what you paid for,” Leo Lewis said. “We settled, but it ended up costing us thousands in legal fees.”
Cemetery officials said they have identified 200 mistakes in the official records for burial plot locations. Missing or unrecorded records are also a problem, said secretary Eve Boellstorff.
“People are bringing in deeds that are not on the books,” she said.
Officials said efforts are underway to correct the faulty bookkeeping and maps of the cemetery. Managers are using computer software that electronically plots each burial plot into a database and matches vacant ones with appropriate deeds.
Board members and the manager will seek legal advice and work to correcting the situation for the Jameses. One solution is to approach the family of the misplaced cremation burial to determine if moving it to an adjacent site of a relative is a possibility.
“We sincerely apologize for what happened and in the next week will see what we can do about moving those ashes to a more appropriate place,” said board member Jim Bridgewater.