Digging up bones: Regulations are a good thing

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

I heard from the cemetery woman again this week. This time she called me. Her English was better than my Spanish, but that didn’t get us anywhere, so she got my email address and sent me a bill. Best I can make out, if I don’t pay up, she’s going to dig up my grandmother.

My grandmother, my Mamita, lived in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her name was Luci Gonzales and she laughed a lot. She was deeply religious and was always making deals with God. Once, when my mother had diphtheria and almost died, Mamita told God she’d beg money and give it to the church in exchange for her baby’s life. Mama got well, and Mamita hit the streets with a tin cup. At a time and in a place when educating women wasn’t a big priority, she made sure her girls went to college. She saw ghosts in odd places, and once demanded to be moved to a different room in a Venezuelan hotel because there was a ghost under her bed. She sent me sparkly jewelry and big fancy dresses for my birthday and Christmas and Easter, and visited us in the winter because she loved to play in the snow (we’d go to the Smokies to find it).

I loved her.

She died in 1982, the year the World’s Fair came to town. My mother, who brought Mamita to Knoxville to care for her when she got sick, took it hard, and arranged to fly Mamita’s body home to the island so she could be buried in a pretty cemetery in Carolina, just outside San Juan.

Mama is 95 now, and suffers from dementia. The first year I took on the task of paying her bills, I was astounded at the number of charities and political causes she supported. At first, I paid them all, just as she would have done. But as time passed and money dwindled, I started culling them. Then a bill from the cemetery arrived.

Turned out that she was paying annual maintenance on Mamita’s grave.

This one truly bumfuzzled me. I’d covered the long, sad story of Halls Memory Gardens (now Fort Sumter Community Cemetery), and how its previous owner abandoned it, bilking scores of customers by selling the same plot to more than one customer. I followed tireless crusader Bobbie Woodall around, and she educated me about Tennessee laws regulating cemeteries. Like every other state, we have mandatory trust funds set up for perpetual care. That’s part of the built-in cost of buying a cemetery plot.

Not so in Puerto Rico, where problems are compounded by an economic crisis that has bankrupted the island. There are no laws requiring up-front payment of perpetual care.

I’ve been paying the annual fee because that’s what Mama did. But let’s face it. None of us are here forever. I’ll think about this the next time I hear a rant about government regulations.

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