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Vandals pay unwelcome visit to graveyard

Brandon is 5 years old. Last week he asked his grandmother to take him to Happy Homestead Cemetery so he could leave something for his mother, Paula McCrary, who died in June when she was only 20.

He and his grandmother, Deborah Woodruff, chose a small pink butterfly, which she said would represent the spirit of her lost child, to decorate the grave where McCrary’s ashes are buried. When Woodruff returned to the interment wall the next day, the butterfly was gone and neither she nor the groundskeeper could find it anywhere.

Woodruff believes the butterfly was stolen, and said it is one in a series of thefts and vandalism which have plagued the cemetery.



“I haven’t told (Brandon) it was taken yet,” said Woodruff, who tried desperately to replace the butterfly but could not. “These are the only things we have and now they are gone. It’s just heart wrenching.”

A wooden flower pot carved to look like a reindeer and filled with red poinsettias was stolen, according to Woodruff, less than two days after she placed it at her daughter’s grave in December. Someone also smashed a small glass ball left at McCrary’s grave in October. The ball was meant to commemorate her birthday, and was a gift from another woman whose daughter died two years ago.




“She had always been fond of that reindeer,” Woodruff said, adding that vandalism “isn’t something that just popped up when my daughter died. This has been a problem for a long time.”

“A cemetery is a sacred place,” said a woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But it’s a common occurrence. If you put something on the wall someone is probably going to take it if it isn’t fastened down.”

Vandalism is no worse now than it has been in the past. Cemeteries across the country have similar problems, according to Happy Homestead’s manager Leon Schindell. High winds can also blow away flowers and other decorations, he said.

“Who in their right mind would steal something from a grave?” Schindell asked. “I can’t imagine somebody doing it, but it does happen.”

In the spring, leaving items such as the butterfly and the reindeer is not allowed by the cemetery, but when the weather turns cold people are allowed to bend the rules by leaving artificial flowers and larger decorations.

Woodruff said she appreciates everything Schindell and the other groundskeepers do.

“The groundskeepers have been great, and Leon is a fantastic person,” she said.

Groundskeepers store everything they remove from graves in April for months in case someone might want to claim them. Groundskeepers also remove real flowers or wreaths when they have lost their beauty, according to Schindell.

In the 26 years he has worked at the cemetery, Schindell has seen windows broken by vandals and gravestones pushed over, but said he does not know how to stop people from stealing, or destroying, things left on graves.

“Unless you can all of a sudden make honest people, I don’t know how you can resolve this,” he said.

The South Lake Tahoe Police Department has not received any complaint regarding vandalism at the cemetery recently, but Chief Brad Bennett said they would “fully investigate any report of vandalism or theft in the cemetery or anywhere else.”

Losing a loved one is difficult for anyone, Schindell said, but people who lose children are often affected most dramatically.

“If we never buried another young person in this cemetery it would be too soon,” he said.

“It has not been easy,” said John Woodruff, McCrary’s father. “You try to do something for your child – in her memory – and as soon as you do it is gone.”

“This isn’t just from a grieving parent, this has been happening for a long time,” Woodruff said.

She still doesn’t know what she will tell Brandon the next time he asks to go talk to his mother, but Woodruff said her grandson is very smart and that she hopes he will understand.


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