Matthew 8:22 “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
3 families say New Orleans cemetery supervisor shook them down for gravedigging fees
Published: Sunday, August 22, 2010, 11:00 PM Updated: Monday, August 23, 2010, 7:54 AM
By Aimee Miles, staff writer
New evidence has surfaced implicating a city employee with mishandling payments and improperly hiring at least one man, purporting to be her grandson, to dig graves in three publicly owned burial grounds.
Three weeks ago, eastern New Orleans resident Nanette Nelson contacted the city’s Division of Cemeteries to arrange a burial for her mother-in-law in the family plot in Holt Cemetery. When city employee Ava Gardner told Nelson to bring $350 the day of the service to hire a gravedigger that ultimately didn’t show up, Nelson reported it to higher-ups and discovered that Gardner had violated city law.
Since then, other families have spoken out with similar tales of Gardner’s actions — each involving an ill-prepared or absentee gravedigger that Gardner hired and asked families to pay for.
According to a the city’s municipal code, city employees cannot be involved in contracting or brokering gravedigging services, as Gardner is accused of doing. The new testimonies suggest that Gardner, who has served as Interim superintendent of cemeteries since shortly after Hurricane Katrina, may have been a habitual offender.
Horrified family pelted by pieces of tomb
The most recent incident that surfaced involved the Dumestre family, who planned to hold a small service for their mother in Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 on May 7. Officials with the city’s Department of Property Management directed them to Gardner, who told the Dumestres to bring $350 in cash to pay the gravedigger for opening the family tomb on the day of interment.
Jeanne Dumestre said she arrived at Lafayette No. 2 shortly before her mother’s service and located the cemetery supervisor, accompanied by a man she took to be the gravedigger. When she asked the pair if they had opened the tomb in preparation for the service, they replied that they had just begun looking for it.
What followed was a series of mishaps that, in Dumestre’s words, “virtually ruined” the family service. Dumestre guided the supervisor and gravedigger to the tomb, where they tried unsuccessfully to pry open the marble front by hand.
Seeing that the gravedigger didn’t have any tools with him, the family removed the frontispiece themselves, only to discover a brick wall behind it that obstructed the opening of the tomb. It was at that point, Dumestre said, that the gravedigger produced a mallet and proceeded, rather unceremoniously, to smash a hole in the wall, freeing a barrage of pulverized mortar and brick that pelted family members who looked on in horror.
Dumestre said she handed the gravedigger $200 after the service, refusing to pay the full fee on account of his behavior.
“He said, oh, no, that’s for my grandma,” Dumestre recalled. “He seemed uncomfortable about taking the cash, which I thought was weird because (Gardner) told us to give money to the gravedigger.”
As Dumestre was walking away, the gravedigger, whose name Dumestre didn’t know, phoned his grandmother. The grandmother asked to speak to Dumestre and demanded that she pay the full $350 fee, but did not reveal her identity over the phone.
Dumestre said she didn’t put two and two together at the time, but she now believes that the woman on the phone was Alma Gardner, and that Gardner had hired out her own grandson for the job.
A similar experience
Dumestre’s experience with Gardner bears remarkable similarities not only to Nelson’s account, but to that of Nick Weber, who also says Gardner tried to scam his family.
According to Weber, Gardner asked for two separate payments: $100 made out to the city of New Orleans — a legitimate fee — and an additional $440 made out to Terry Gardner, whom she identified as the gravedigger.
Herndon wrote the check to Terry Gardner and left it with Alma Gardner, not questioning the transaction or any potential relationship between the two. Alma Gardner called the next day, saying that Terry Gardner wasn’t able to cash the check for the full amount. She demanded that Herndon pay him an additional $40.
Weber and Herndon discontinued correspondence with Alma Gardner after they confirmed that Terry Gardner had indeed cashed the check for the full amount. Five months later, the other check Herndon handed to Alma Gardner, $100 made out to the city of New Orleans, still hasn’t cleared.
Woman is reprimanded
Gardner’s first reported transgression, involving Nanette Nelson, was made known to her supervisor at the Department of Property Management in mid-July. After that incident, Gardner was reprimanded but continued to work as an employee of the cemetery division. Gardner’s supervisor, Ed Mazoue, said her actions did not merit harsher measures because, to his knowledge, she had never committed any other infractions. However, he was tight-lipped on the extent to which his department investigated the matter.
Weber and Dumestre did not file complaints with property management officials until early August, after they read about Nelson’s experience.
Dumestre’s conclusion that Gardner had been hiring out her grandson, or a man purporting to be her grandson, seems consistent with the testimony of Weber, whose sister made out a $440 check to Terry Gardner; and with that of Nelson, who was told by a gravedigger in Holt Cemetery that Alma Gardner was his grandmother. As in Weber’s case, Dumestre said the $100 check her family wrote to the city for the interment fee has never cleared.
Alma Gardner’s motives for hiring her alleged relative is uncertain, and it is not known whether she received a share of the gravedigging fees in return.
That her actions went unnoticed speaks to the scant level of attention devoted to the administration and maintenance of the city’s graveyards, where the caretaking staff have dwindled through the years to just one or two workers.
Neither the city’s property management department nor the cemetery division has a website, making it difficult to identify staff members or understand the proper policies and procedures concerning interments in city-owned cemeteries. None of the families who complained about Gardner were aware of the illegality of her actions until long after the fact.
City burial services
Part of the confusion may stem from the procedure the city uses for burials in its cemeteries. While families go through a funeral home to arrange a graveside funeral service for the deceased, the actual digging and filling of graves and the opening and closing of tombs isn’t part of the funeral home service.
For that, families must hire a gravedigging crew. Most private cemeteries provide crews, but the city’s property management department got rid of its crews after budget deficits forced it to whittle down its cemetery staff.
Since then, anyone desiring to bury a relative in a city-owned cemetery must file an application with the Division of Cemeteries and pay a $100 fee to have a city employee monitor the gravedigging. According to a city law put in place after Katrina, the city is supposed to provide the family with a list of private firms that supply gravedigging services, but the family must select the firm and make payments independently of the city.
New Orleans’ languishing public cemeteries, whose labyrinths of moldering tombs and poorly marked, overlapping graves have earned them a reputation as potter’s fields, have run up against other problems.
Because cemetery records were waterlogged five years ago, no one can keep track of who is buried where, although coffins sometimes re-emerge from their shallow graves as a macabre reminder. Several members of Save Our Cemeteries, a local nonprofit group, say they’ve locked horns with a well-connected con artist who squats in the sexton’s shack at Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 and reportedly solicits money from visitors.
In response to the latest allegations, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu said that man was removed from the premises as of mid-August, and that the city’s Division of Cemeteries now has new leadership. It is not clear whether Gardner continues to handle cemetery affairs.
“There’s not nearly enough money, resources or manpower to maintain the facilities,” Ryan Berni said.
“It’s an issue that had been unaddressed for a while when we (Mayor Landrieu’s administration) came in and we’re doing our best to remedy it with limited resources.”