Jerry Davich: Gravesite thefts prove nothing’s sacred
By Jerry Davich Post-Tribune columnist March 14, 2014 8:44PM
Updated: March 16, 2014 10:30PM
Carol Coburn stopped to catch her breath near her daughter’s gravesite at Angelcrest Cemetery in Valparaiso.
It wasn’t from the bitter cold or swirling wind one recent morning, but the fact that someone would have the coldness to steal a decoration from the hallowed site.
“It was an invasion,” said Coburn, who decorated the headstone with a handcrafted Christmas arrangement. “Some people buy Christmas gifts. I go out and buy a beautiful funeral arrangement for my daughter. And now it’s gone, stolen.”
Coburn’s daughter, Dawne Marie Kratzenberg, died of breast cancer on May 23, 2003, at age 39.
“She was a teacher in San Diego and came home to live with us when she could no longer stay there,” Coburn told me. “She was one of the most beautiful human beings, inside and out, who walked this Earth. I know I am her mom but others agreed too.”
“How could someone stoop so low as to invade a deceased person’s property?” Coburn asked in disbelief.
Coburn discovered the theft when she visited the gravesite last week to adorn the headstone with new springtime flowers. It’s her seasonal ritual, and it’s not the first time this has happened to her daughter’s grave.
“I cannot express the sadness and emptiness this gives me. This is my way to be closer to her,” she added.
Coburn doesn’t want to cause a problem with Angelcrest but she simply can’t believe such a crime exists. Neither can I, even though I consider myself a jaded skeptic about so many things in life.
But to steal from such a sanctified site? Is nothing sacred anymore? Apparently not, I’ve learned.
I contacted Angelcrest’s management to ask how often this type of crime takes place at that property. A staff member told me the cemetery’s owner, Moeller Funeral Home, is unavailable for comment until next week.
“It’s sad but if a cemetery exists, people steal from it,” said Dan Moran, general manager of Calumet Park Cemetery in Merrillville.
“Not to sound harsh, but it does amaze me how people think there is a bubble over cemeteries and that we don’t exist in the same empirical world as they do,” Moran said.
In Moran’s first year in the business, while working at another Northwest Indiana cemetery, he learned that cemeteries are not off limits to criminals.
“We caught a guy coming in at night on Memorial Day weekend who was stealing flowers that people brought for their loved ones,” he recalled. “And then he had the audacity to stand outside the gate the next day and sell them to people entering the cemetery.”
Porter County Sheriff David Lain said most thefts at cemeteries involve scrap metals, typically bronze vases or statues that can reap a few bucks from shady recyclers. And typically by criminals who have drug addictions to feed.
“All they see is their drug fix, nothing else,” Lain told me on my radio show last Friday.
What can be done to stop such thefts? Surveillance cameras? Extra police patrols? Family awareness of suspicious vehicles or visitors? Possibly, but unlikely.
Moran noted that sometimes it’s “honest” mourners who swipe a nearby vase for their fresh flowers or an eye-catching arrangement that’s available for the taking.
“Then they drive off leaving us to deal with the person who they appropriated the vase from,” Moran said.
Moran once worked at a cemetery in Las Vegas, just off the strip, which had barbed wire fences, armed guards at the gate and staffed escorts to gravesites.
“Nice, huh?” he asked sarcastically. “So we have not slipped so far in Northwest Indiana, but we are not a part of the country where people should leave their doors unlocked either.”
In defense of cemeteries, there is now such a thing as “decorating rules and regulations” that families must sign, acknowledging what can or cannot be left at a grave. Many allegedly “stolen” items are removed and disposed by cemetery crews simply doing their job, I’m told.
“From a practical perspective, what happens to the trash that people leave behind by way of a nice teddy bear that looks like a clump of garbage after the first rainfall?” Moran asked. “Who buys new and expensive equipment when wires and plastic gets caught in the blades of lawn mowers?”
At Calumet Park’s front gate, a large sign alerts visitors to stop at its main office to inquire about the property’s rules and regulations. “Before they spend a lot of money on something that is not allowed in their section,” Moran said.
Coburn, though, has been regularly visiting — and decorating — her daughter’s grave since her death. More than a decade now. For her, it’s not about the cemetery’s rules but society’s unruliness. And also sacrilegious criminals who have no respect for the dead.
“It’s heartbreaking is what it is,” Coburn said, looking around at all the arrangements still adorning other graves inside Angelcrest. “Yet my daughter’s is now gone.”
“I am left to think I will no longer put that type of arrangement on as I have before,” she told me.
I hope not.
Unlike what we are led to believe, cemeteries exist for the living, not for the dead.
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voicemail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.