By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Red flowers bloomed on Rick Rojas's father's grave at Hollywood Cemetery -- but he didn't know who had planted them. His father, Brigido Rojas, is buried on a sloping hill covered in clover and headstones with mostly Hispanic last names. A few yards from Little White Oak Bayou, there's a constant rushing noise because the cemetery is located on the I-45 feeder road.
Some graves have hand-carved crying angels; others are marked with pine cones and empty bottles of Bud Light. Rojas didn't erect a headstone over his father's grave because his mother didn't want to see her name carved in granite. "We granted her that wish," he says.
Last year, a week after Valentine's Day, Rojas was visiting his father's grave when he met a woman who demanded to know who had left balloons and roses on her husband's grave. Rojas said his sister, Patricia Flores, had placed them on their father's grave. The woman insisted that her husband was buried there. "She was adamant that it was him," Rojas says.
Their receipts and records showed that they had bought the same plot, Rojas says.
A Houston police officer, Rojas asked the cemetery to exhume the body. Even if the corpse was decayed, he could recognize his father because he had pinned one of his HPD badges to his dad's lapel; plus, since his father had lost both legs to diabetes, there would be fewer bones in the coffin.
"They didn't want to do it," Rojas says. "Their excuse was that as soon as they opened the casket a lawsuit was going to be filed. We didn't care about no lawsuit. We just wanted to make sure it was him buried there, not nobody else."
Rojas first became suspicious of the cemetery's record-keeping when his mother died. A cemetery worker got out a map and walked Rojas to the spot where his mother was going to be buried. "This is where your father's buried; we'll put your mother here right next to him," Rojas remembers his saying.
But they were across the cemetery, about 50 yards from his father's grave. "I said, 'I was at the funeral. I know damn well he wasn't here,' " Rojas says. Rojas argued with the man for a while, then took out his cell phone, called his brother and sister and told them to meet him at Dad's grave. When they arrived, his brother whistled at him, pointed to the ground and called, "Dad's over here!"
Rojas claims his father's grave was sold three times.
The Texas Funeral Commission has received half a dozen complaints from families who believe Hollywood Cemetery has resold plots, stacked graves or placed people in the wrong plot. One woman says a child was buried on top of her mother's grave. Another woman claims the cemetery buried someone in the plot she had bought for herself and then falsified maps to dupe her. Yet another woman alleges that the cemetery dug up her daughter and moved her to another grave without informing her.
Cemetery general manager Ariel Olmos says he is doing his best to resolve all grievances. "If there's ever a problem, we're available seven days a week. Just like a funeral home, we're there to assist these families," he says.
Flores says Olmos promised to personally drive to Austin and get a permit from the health department to exhume her father. But he never did.
"If I have to, I'll start digging up the damn hole myself," Flores says.
Texas Funeral Service Commissioner Chet Robbins has the authority only to regulate retail price lists at crematories and cemeteries. There are currently four bills in the Texas legislature that would give Robbins the power to make sure the right body is buried in the right grave.
"Our intent was to give him some more teeth in his regulatory capacity," says Representative Rick Noriega (D-Houston), who authored House Bill 603.
Robbins is essentially a sheriff without a gun: All he can do is write long letters on behalf of family members who believe their loved ones are buried in the wrong place, saying he wishes he could help but there isn't a law to back him. Chapter 711 of the Texas Health and Safety Code says records should be kept of each interment in a cemetery. "But it doesn't say who keeps that," says Steve Elkins, field services program administrator for the Bureau of Vital Statistics, a division of the Texas Department of Health. "I think it must be implied" that the cemetery does, he says.
The vaguely written statute doesn't carry a penalty for not keeping records and isn't enforced by the health department. "We really haven't considered that our responsibility to oversee that or enforce that," Elkins says. "Most people obey."
The Texas Department of Banking licenses perpetual care cemeteries such as Hollywood and conducts audits on these cemeteries to ensure trusts are properly maintained. They also make sure the book of interments is updated. "They need to know their inventory so they don't oversell," says Russell Reese, director of special audits with the Texas Department of Banking. Although the banking department licenses perpetual care cemeteries, it has authority only over Chapter 712 of the health and safety code, which doesn't specifically say perpetual care cemeteries have to keep records. "We've had very good success getting enforcement voluntarily," Reese says.