Sep. 16—Joyce Heck, of Newton, approached the podium during last week's city council meeting with the latest issue of the Get to Know Newton magazine in her hand. In it, she found an article informing residents of the cemetery rules, something she had never heard of before, but they have been in effect for several years.
"I've had people buried at Newton Union for 35 years and never seen any rules," Heck said. "If you're going to have them, we need to know what they are. Also, I don't think they're all being treated the same. We had two things stolen off of our in-laws' — not stolen — taken off of our in-laws' grave."
Heck later showed council members pictures of different grave sites with multiple shepherds hooks and other items nearby, suggesting others were cleared and pointing out inconsistencies in enforcing the rules. She also found some of the rules to be unreasonable, like the 42-inch height maximum for shepherd's hooks.
The Newton resident also commented the city does not allow artificial flowers, a claim that was later disputed by staff. Brian Laube, director of community services, said the city actually does allow artificial flowers, but they must be set in permanent containers on the foundations.
According to the lengthy rules regarding floral decorations, flowers or bouquets will be removed when they become unsightly, and any flowers that are stuck in the ground are not permitted. Still, Heck said she has "a lot of problems" with the current rules, which were later discussed in-depth by council members.
Council member at-large and pro-tem Randy Ervin said issues with cemetery rules are brought to the attention of city officials from time to time. Ervin said a lot of the questions and concerns are focused on consistency. Laube welcomed the opportunity to discuss the cemeteries and their rules, stressing they are not new.
"These are approved by past city councils," he said. "We're enforcing existing rules. What these rules do is they provide for easier maintenance, trimming, mowing — just a neat, tight cemetery. We make thousands and thousands of passes by cemetery headstones and other obstacles."
Laube added he gets very few complaints about mowers hitting and damaging headstones and the like. For him, it is important to keep the rules in place and keep decoration items confined for easier maintenance. But Laube also conceded the city is not immune to complaints from time to time.
"I will share that the complaints that trickle through city council to the city administrator and back to myself, they are countered by probably as many compliments that staff receives when they're out there working or complaints from citizens (saying), 'Why aren't you enforcing these rules enough?'" he said.
Newton has two city-owned cemeteries: Newton Union Cemetery at 1601 W. Fourth St. N. and Newton Memorial Park Cemetery at 2710 First Ave. E. Typically, staff will clean the cemeteries from the first full week of April until the first full week of October, according to the city's website.
Laube said the cemeteries are maintained with a mix of full-time and part-time staff, though the city does lean on the latter. While Laube is aware of incidents in the past where some individuals became "a little overzealous" or took something, he emphasized to workers that, when in doubt, ask a superintendent.
Responding to another claim from Heck, Laube said city staff do not take items. He reasoned there are other people in the public cemeteries that may steal things from time to time. When complaints do arise, Laube believes staff do a good job of finding ways to enforce the rules and accommodate residents' needs.
Ervin asked how well the city is informing residents of the cemetery rules. While the city does try to post on social media and send information to local media outlets ahead of cleanup times, Laube said the unfortunate reality is the rules are rather lengthy; the document available on the website is 14 pages long.
The rules are updated sparingly. Laube estimates it has been about two or three years since the rules received minor changes. Any time a complaint or concern comes through the community services department, Laube discusses it amongst staff and from there they decide whether it requires a revision to the rules.
Council member Vicki Wade asked if staff coordinate with the funeral homes and monument businesses around the area to help spread the message about the rules. Laube confirmed they do, and in fact any time staff proposes new changes they contact those entities for input.
"We also talk with the Jasper County veterans groups quite often in a given year, and I will share they have been a big advocate of tighter rules," Laube said.
They, too, like seeing a polished cemetery.
The city has also broken down rules into three sections — marker/monument regulations, lot sales or transfers and floral decorations, plantings and other decorative items — to help make them more comprehendible. But because the rules are so thorough, it becomes difficult to post them on a sign.
If the city did have a sign made that included all the rules, Laube said it would be as big as the entire side of the maintenance shed. The city does have very basic, rudimentary sets of rules posted at the cemeteries, but Laube said staff are exploring different options like adding a QR code.
Still, Laube said a new sign with abridged rules could be beneficial. The sign, for instance, could feature the 11 rules regarding floral decorations, plantings and other decorative items, which are posted on the city's website. Laube noted they are also the most offended rules.
Council members liked the QR code idea and possibly adding a new sign.
If you have any questions or concerns about the cemetery rules, please contact the city's community services department at 641-792-7116.