Families appalled at condition of San Antonio Catholic cemeteries, demand answers

Instead of flowers, many bring lawn care equipment when visiting loved ones

SAN ANTONIO – Over the past few months, the KSAT Defenders have been inundated with complaints about the conditions at cemeteries owned by the Archdiocese of San Antonio.

Many were appalled at the state of the properties. Tall weeds and grass, headstones buried under dirt, and some gravesites that have sunken several feet -- not at all what you expect to see when visiting your loved ones.

So what’s going on? How did conditions get this bad? Reporter Tim Gerber spent the past several weeks visiting the cemeteries and talking to family members, some of whom have taken it upon themselves to clean up the mess.

On a visit to San Fernando Cemetery II in early June, Juan Becerra was mowing the grass near several headstones even though that’s not his job.

”I don’t work for San Fernando. I just come and do my yard for my grandpa, and my cousins right here, my baby cousins,” Becerra said.

Becerra didn’t seem bothered to be mowing on that day. He just went about his duties with loving precision. Becerra said he has a lot of respect for the dead and just wants his family’s eternal resting place to be peaceful. But lately, he’s been spending more time taking care of the gravesites. Days of heavy rains in May had left the cemetery full of weeds and tall grass.

”I don’t come real often. I just come like when I see that the grass is real, real tall,” Becerra said. “The thing is that (cemetery workers) cannot catch up because of the rain. I understand that. That’s why I come and try to help them out.”

He’s not alone. Over the course of six weeks of visits to the cemetery, from early May through mid-June, the Defenders encountered several people doing their own lawn care at a loved one’s gravesite.

Miguel Herrera said he started bringing his lawn tools after seeing the conditions on Mother’s Day.

”You couldn’t even see (the grave), so we cleaned it up a little bit,” Herrera said. “So we just have to take it upon ourselves to clean up her mom and dad’s site.”

Tombstone appears covered in weeds, tall grasses at cemetery owned by the Archdiocese of San Antonio. (Tim Gerber/KSAT)

Herrera was so disturbed by the overgrown conditions that he started mowing, trimming, and blowing the gravesites near his family members.

”I even started doing some of the other people. But I said, you know, you could be here all day,” Herrera said. “There’s a lot of guilt involved just living them like that.”

Herrera said he asked cemetery workers why they were having trouble keeping up with the landscaping and they told him they’re short-staffed.

”Apparently they don’t have the personnel to better take care of the overgrowth,” Herrera said. “So you either leave it like that or take it on yourself to try to do something about it.”

Tito Reyes said he has also started taking care of the graves around his father and brother, but he doesn’t think it should be up to the families to care for the graves they paid for.

”Where’s all that money going that they charge you for all of this to bury somebody?” Reyes asked. “It’s not cheap. It’s not, it’s not cheap at all.”

Reyes said if the cemetery can’t keep up with the maintenance, they should hire someone who can.

”This is a Catholic cemetery. It shouldn’t be like this,” Reyes said.

Other people the Defenders talked to had trouble even finding their loved one’s graves. If they’re not hidden by tall grass and weeds, they’re covered in dirt and debris.

Paul Shope needed help from a grounds crew member to find his family’s plot that was obscured by thick grass. But he said it’s not the first time he’s had trouble finding the site.

”The last time I was out here with my wife was about a year ago,” Shope recalled. “She got real upset because she was like this was where her parents were and it was all covered with mud. Like you couldn’t even see it.”

Several areas of San Fernando II showed plenty of evidence of flooding and even worse, deep tire tracks from heavy machinery that went right over several gravestones.

”It just makes me really sad, you know, because all these people are paying money to have these gravestones put in here. I know, because I just got through paying,” Shope said. “They deserve better than this.”

Some areas of the San Fernando Cemeteries II and III are so overgrown they looked like they had been abandoned for years, but some of the problems the Defenders found seemed to go well beyond a lack of basic maintenance.

Over at San Fernando III, there were fallen tree limbs resting on headstones, water taps that didn’t work and sinkholes opening up near headstones. Several gravesites that had been dug within the past two years showed evidence of significant sinking, with some graves sunken as much as three feet below the surface.

Pictured is a gravesite at one of the cemeteries owned by the Archdiocese of San Antonio. (Tim Gerber/KSAT)

Again, some families were taking matters into their own hands and fixing the problems themselves by filling in dirt and planting new grass on top. To be fair, the Defenders did notice on other visits, that some of the sunken graves had been filled in. And over at San Fernando II, Daniel Zaragoza said he complained about a sinking grave next to his mom’s.

”There was a deep hole, like at least three feet down,” Zaragoza said. “I mean an accident could happen. But I mean, they filled it up actually after I complained.”

The Archdiocese of San Antonio, which owns and operates the cemeteries, did not answer several direct questions about the conditions at both cemeteries but in a series of emailed statements, pledging to do better. Miguel Herrera wasn’t sure what to believe after seeing little to no improvement each time he visits.

”I don’t know really what their answer is because I don’t really know if what they’re telling us is correct or the truth,” Herrera said. “You know, they just say whatever.”

In an emailed statement sent on June 8, Jordan McMorrough, director of communications for the Archdiocese of San Antonio, said: “Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese are committed to the professional maintenance and appearance of its facilities out of respect for the dignity of those interred in these holy grounds. Cemetery personnel have been working diligently in conducting burials as well as care of the cemetery sites which have been impacted by recent heavy, sustained rains. Issues are being addressed in a planned manner as weather conditions continue improving.”

In a follow-up email on June 22, McMorrough wrote: “I have some updated information for you regarding Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese since our previous communication last Tuesday. I have heard from the manager and foreman regarding maintenance schedules. San Fernando Cemetery I has been cut and cleaned. San Fernando Cemetery II is currently having the grass cut in the older section of the property by Cupples Road. Once that is completed, personnel will go back to the side of the property adjacent to General McMullen and start over on cutting the grass in that area. There are sections of grass that need to be re-cut at San Fernando Cemetery III, and that will be done by the end of this week. Personnel are working hard to improve the appearance of the cemetery grounds, and cutting the grass at each of the sites is a priority.”

The Defenders will be checking back to see if there is any improvement in the grounds at both cemeteries.

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About the Authors:

Tim Gerber is an investigative reporter and anchor on the KSAT Defenders team.

Dale Keller is senior news photographer at KSAT-12.