Sharon Hills Memorial Park managers have agreed to change maintenance procedures at the West Dover cemetery.

Weeks after complaints began surfacing on social media, managers at Sharon Hills Memorial Park have agreed to change maintenance procedures at the West Dover cemetery.

At first, cemetery owner Louis N. Ottaviano defended the grounds keeping, saying the 50-acre cemetery is well-kept.

“Cutting grass in a cemetery is a challenge unlike any other grass cutting operation as there are markers, monuments, vases and all types of ornamentation that we must avoid,” he said during an interview Aug. 31.

Dover resident Cheryl Young brought up the issue following an Aug. 20 trip to the graves of her parents, grandparents, and in-laws.

She found the grass was too tall, sidewalks were broken and walkways overgrown, and clumps of cut grass completely obscured grave markers. Other families who own plots at Sharon Hills soon added similar comments to a Facebook group Young founded, a group that now has more than 300 members.

Young started using social media as she felt the cemetery’s staff was being uncooperative.

While not acknowledging pressure brought on by Young’s group, in a Sept. 5 email to the Dover Post, Ottaviano and general manager Ethel Melvin-Reed said they would address the complaints.

“We agree,” the email said, “there are some areas at Sharon Hills that have not stood the test of time even though the intent was good. The materials used have become a maintenance nightmare, and we will be prioritizing and addressing them as well.”

On Sept. 11, they sent an additional email, saying specific problems, such as overgrown walkways, will be fixed.

“Our office has been flooded with calls of concerns, comments, and complaints,” they wrote, asking people to be patient while they work to get specifics.

They also will post signs reminding families not to place ornamentation on the graves, as this impedes grass cutting and trimming.

But as of Sept. 12, Young said she has not been contacted by the cemetery.

“I’d be happy to speak with the staff at Sharon Hills, although I haven’t heard anything yet,” she said.

Owner: Claims ‘not true’

Sharon Hills was established in 1959 on rural Route 8. It has gone through a succession of proprietors and now is solely owned by Ottaviano, an independent cemetery and funeral consultant. He also owns the Odd Fellows cemeteries in Camden and Smyrna.

One of the first complaints was raised by Debbie Virdin, whose parents, Olin and Eloise Virdin, bought plots in December 1959. The couple paid $385 for four gravesites, a price that included a perpetual care provision.

Virdin said her parents bought the plots because the cemetery is on land once owned by her relatives.

“We have a great deal of family out here,” she said, adding her father had been born in a house that once stood on the property.

Today, Virdin considers the appearance of their graves “appalling.”

Kim Tworig’s parents bought a pair of gravesites in 1979.

“At that time, they wanted to preplan so they wanted a plot so the kids would not have to worry about any of that,” she said. “It was nice up until a few years ago. When I went back a couple of years ago, it wasn’t looking good.”

Her father was buried there in 1994, and Tworig said her mother, now in her 70s, is upset as it appears to her the cemetery is not honoring its guarantee of perpetual care.

“That’s not true,” Ottaviano said. During the Aug. 31 interview at the cemetery office, across from the grounds itself, he pointed out a crew that was at work with a mower and weed trimmers.

“We cut and trim every six days. There’s four guys, five guys, out there right now trimming. All week, that’s what they do,” he said.

The grass is cut between 3.5 and 4 inches in height, he added.

“Is it perfect? That’s a matter of opinion, but this is a cemetery. This is not a golf course,” he said. “People will refer to this when they come out, they refer to this, well, ‘My yard doesn’t look like that.’ This is not a yard. This is a cemetery.”

Ottaviano noted it also is normal that grass, particularly fast, sideways-growing crabgrass and buckhorn weeds can impinge on grave markers. All headstones in Sharon Hills are flat bronze markers, set in a base at ground level. This arrangement facilitates mowing and trimming.

“Whatever you do, you now have grass growing sideways and up, so that’s the crabgrass, that’s a characteristic of crabgrass,” Ottaviano said. “So at this time of the year, you can cut and trim one day, and the next day it’s covered. You have crabgrass, you know, covering the marker, encroaching into the marker. It’s the nature of the growth of the crabgrass.”

No applicable regulations

The state Department of Health and Social Services has no cemetery maintenance guidance or regulations.

“The condition of the property is a local/county decision,” DHSS spokeswoman Andrea Wojcik said. “There are no applicable state regulations regarding cemetery upkeep.”

While there is a Delaware Cemetery Board, its primary purpose is to oversee a fund geared toward restoring old cemeteries. It has no regulatory authority over any burial ground, although it can refer complaints to the state’s Consumer Protection Agency.

Complaints about Sharon Hills maintenance were brought up during an Aug. 17, 2016, board meeting, but those in attendance were told problems should be brought to the attorney general’s office.

On Sept. 12, Department of Justice spokesman Carl Kanefsky confirmed the agency’s Consumer Protection Unit will ask the cemetery to provide records of lot sales guaranteeing perpetual care. Anyone wishing to file a complaint against Sharon Hills should contact his office, Kanefsky said.

“Anyone with a complaint about the cemetery that could constitute a violation of the state’s consumer protection laws is asked to formally register a complaint utilizing the form at http://attorneygeneral.delaware.gov/fraud/cpu/complaint/,” he said. The case number is 18-17004613.

Days before the interview with Ottaviano, the Dover Post met at the cemetery with Young and others who have relatives buried there. Levy Court Commissioner James Hosfelt, whose district includes the memorial park, was there.

At Hosfelt’s request, two representatives from Levy Court’s inspections office toured the property but found no overt violations of the county property maintenance code.

While Hosfelt said county government is limited in what it can do, he agreed Young and others have valid concerns.

“Truth be known, I am very fortunate in the sense that I have not buried a family member at this point in my life,” he wrote in an email, “but after taking a look at the conditions of the memorial park it would certainly cause me grief if I had a loved one resting at Sharon Hills Memorial Park.”

Something will be done, Young said, adding she expects the cemetery to replace flower urns and vases that have gone missing.

“This problem has been going on for too many years, and we won’t stop until it’s solved and corrected,” she said. “We will no longer allow our loved ones to be disrespected.”