Comstock Township families irate after cemetery cleanup

Kalamazoo County

COMSTOCK TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Cemetery cleanup efforts in Comstock Township have led to a mess of emotions.

A meeting held Tuesday afternoon by the township cemetery committee erupted into chaos as a packed room of grieving residents confronted officials, saying items were removed from their loved ones’ gravesites.

“Would your kids feel the same if it was you buried there?” Helen Eaton said to committee members during the public comment portion of the meeting. “Them not being able to put flowers there and grieve for you. You took that away from us.”

Since taking office in November, Comstock Township Clerk Nicole Beauchamp has made cemetery cleanup and maintenance a top priority.

People attending a Comstock Township meeting, comforting grieving families whose loved ones’ gravesites were cleaned. (May 25, 2021)

After taking it up with the board, Beauchamp recently began leading the charge to crackdown on a decades-old ordinance that has never been enforced.

Beauchamp said fair warning was given to residents through signage posted at the cemeteries, discussions at public meetings and postcards mailed to the homes of all plot owners.

“Please ensure your plot is in compliance with the ordinance,” the notice stated. “The township will be removing any items not in compliance, which may include edging, stones, (potted) plants, ornaments, decorations.”

Beauchamp said enforcing the ordinance makes the cemetery easier to maintain, citing complaints from plot owners that the cemeteries had become unkept and difficult to navigate.

Over the weekend, volunteers with the township’s cemetery committee began carrying out the cleanup efforts, removing prohibited items from gravesites.

A gravesite after cleanup efforts at Maple Grove Cemetery in Comstock Township.

Most items were thrown out, though a select few were tagged and placed in storage for the owners to retrieve.

Dozens of angry and emotional residents turned out to Tuesday’s meeting, condemning the township for taking such action.

Several people in attendance said they never received a notice informing them of the enforcement.

“My son had an angel sitting on his grave that I placed there on the day of his funeral 15 years ago and when I went there yesterday, the only thing that was left was a broken angel wing,” Vici Buell said.

A courtesy photo of cleanup efforts by Comstock Township officials at Maple Grove Cemetery.

Eaton, who also knows the pain of losing a child, said mementos, flowers and other keepsakes were removed from her 17-year-old son’s plot as part of the township’s cleanup efforts.

“The way that they did it was devastating,” she said. “I came here yesterday and there were trash bags all lining the road. I’m just grateful I found his stuff at the top, but a lot of other (things) were broken or missing.”

The most emotional moment of Tuesday’s meeting came when Jeanie Phelps addressed the committee.

Phelps spent more than 30 years looking for her sister Carol Ann Cole, formerly known as Bossier Doe, whose remains were identified in 2015.

Since laying her sister to rest, Phelps has taken great comfort in visiting the gravesite.

“I still struggle with how I found my sister, and just knowing where she is now and being able to bring her a gift once in a while helps me to cope with what had happened to her,” Phelps said.

Phelps was crushed when she returned to the cemetery Monday and found the angel wings, along other mementos, taken from her sister’s grave.

“It was heartbreaking,” she said.

The committee announced the ordinance in question will be reviewed.

Following the backlash, Beauchamp said the committee will review the ordinance and revisit the matter at their meeting on June 19.

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