Southern Heritage Funeral Home and Cemetery issues apology amid cleanup outcry

Published 5:39 pm Tuesday, May 7, 2024

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By DONALD MOTTERN | Staff Writer

PELHAM – Emotions from families with loved ones buried at Southern Heritage Funeral Home continue to run high following a recent apology issued by management that comes weeks after a controversial cleanup of the cemetery grounds.

That cleanup, which took place in late April, saw many items removed away from gravesites, including removed items that had been present in the area for years. The cleanup and the aftermath has since caused outcry from many of those with friends and family buried at the cemetery and has resulted in many claiming that the grounds keeping effort went too far.

Following weeks of criticism and public discussion across social media, Southern Heritage Cemetery’s General Manager Heath Bowen released a formal letter of apology on the morning of Friday, May 3.

In the letter, Bowen sought to establish the reasoning for the cleanup as well as to apologize for any disservice people felt might have occurred as a result.

“As you may be aware, we recently removed personal items from Southern Heritage Cemetery,” Bowen’s letter read. “The intent was to tidy the park, which, frankly, had not been done in quite some time.”

Bowen, who described themselves in the letter as a new general manager at the location, described their role as carrying the responsibility of maintaining the property as a “beautiful, serene space” at which families and friends could visit their loved ones.

“The goal was to pick up items that would be hazardous to our ground crews if they were to be hit by a mower,” the letter read.

However, that reasoning did not sit well with many who responded to Southern Heritage Funeral Home and Cemetery’s Facebook page. Although some accepted the apology, others were not so quick to take the apology at face value.

“Actions speak louder than these hypocritical words,” said Tricia Tapley, a member of the community. “It’s disgusting and heartbreaking.”

Among the other responses were those claiming that removed items had been placed unceremoniously along a fence and by a dumpster following the cleanup and removal efforts—claims that past announcements from Southern Heritage Cemetery have not agreed with.

Those past announcements have instead maintained that “no personal mementos were discarded,” and described the removed items as being, “collected and saved for families to pick up behind the mausoleum.”

Respondents also took further issue with instructions on what would be allowed on gravesites moving forward, with several declaring the announcement as being far too vague.

According to Bowen’s letter, moving forward, “small items with a flat base that can sit on the bronze marker,” will be allowed. The confusion as to what that constituted led to further open discussion and condemnation of the cleanup from affected families.

“I appreciate (Bowen) taking accountability for (their) actions and for (his) apology,” said Leah Adams Deason, whose son is buried at the cemetery. “I will give (Bowen) the benefit of the doubt that (he means what he says). However, it is still completely unclear what is acceptable. A bronze marker? What is that? My son has a flat ledger on the ground and nothing else. Can we put out a wreath on a stand? Can I put back his angel statue and his cross? I don’t necessarily trust (Southern Heritage), so I need more in-depth details in writing before I will ever spend money to place something there ever again. We deserve that at the very least.”

Samantha Burnham Morris, whose family’s graves were also among those affected during the cleanup, spoke out against the move and also asked for clarification on what the new requirements might mean for graves without headstones. In doing so, she also pointed out that the items removed had been present for years and had never been mentioned as having been an issue.

“I had a concrete planter my mother and father placed on my brother’s grave nine years ago, that was sitting center of all three graves—that was removed,” Morris said. “I placed our flowers in it. It was never an issue nor an eye sore. At this point I’m unable to place flowers for Mother’s Day. Maybe some of this should have been considered prior to the damage that was caused by doing this clean up. Now they think an apology is going to fix the heartbreak and tears people have been dealing with because of this.”

Phyllis Pesseackey, another member of the community and former general manager at Service Corporation International—with 35 years of funeral service and cemetery experience, spoke in defense of the cleanup and Bowen’s management.

“Mr. Bowen was just doing his job and trying to keep the resting place of everyone’s loved ones well maintained and manicured like is expected,” Pesseackey said. “Mr. Bowen should be commended for caring and trying to keep Southern Heritage a cemetery of which to be proud.”

In addressing one of the most cited concerns of the entire cleanup, Southern Heritage Funeral Home and Cemetery has announced that the cemetery will attempt to ensure that future cleanups are adequately communicated with family members moving forward.