Dead Wrong

Relatives say Hollywood Cemetery sells the same plot over and over, stacks graves and buries people where they don t belong. And then forgets about them.

Two bills the legislature is considering, Senate Bill 278 and House Bill 1538, would transfer enforcement authority of the statute to the funeral service commissioner. "I would be able to ensure that we got the right person in the right grave," Robbins says. "If the cemetery operator is being deceitful, in these new bills, they're gonna be under our jurisdiction. I sure hope it passes."

One of Houston's oldest cemeteries, Hollywood was built 108 years ago to bury middle-class white Heights residents who bought headstones with hand-carved Bibles and lifelike daffodils. The demographics of both the neighborhood and the cemetery changed in the 1970s, when the freeway was constructed and lower-income housing was built along the east side of the cemetery, says Doug Milburn, author of Our Ancestors' Graves: Houston's Historic Cemeteries. "The barrio really borders the cemetery," Milburn says.

Juan Garcia took his son and grandson (left) when he asked Ariel Olmos (right) to find his father's grave.
Daniel Kramer
Juan Garcia took his son and grandson (left) when he asked Ariel Olmos (right) to find his father's grave.
Wanda Dowlearn bought three graves, but the cemetery didn't bury her mother in any of them.
Courtesy of Wanda Dowlearn
Wanda Dowlearn bought three graves, but the cemetery didn't bury her mother in any of them.

Located at I-45's North Main exit, the cemetery is across from McDonald's and Fiesta Pawn; it's divided into sections with names like Mossy Dell, Dawn Meadow, Sunset Lawn and Twilight Terrace.

The roads are horse-and-buggy narrow and the graves are filled with Civil War veterans and semi-famous locals.

"This cemetery was opened when they would bring them in on the back of a wagon," says manager Olmos. "It's history."

A white marble slab marks the grave of Houston's first librarian, Julia Ideson, and a four-foot granite monument is at the plot of Shinpei Mykawa, the man who introduced rice farming to Houston, then died under his thresher. The Texas Historical Commission erected a marker at the grave of Mollie Bailey, the "circus queen of the southwest." The marker is near other Bailey headstones, but there isn't one with her name on it.

On a cobblestone walkway behind the main office, past a ripe fig tree and the mausoleum, is a life-sized marble statue of a child looking up at the angel Gabriel. The limestone pedestal was taken from room 301 at Brackenridge Hall at the University of Texas -- the room where the school song "The Eyes of Texas" was co-written by Thomas C. Hall, an attorney who later owned the cemetery. Lyrics about not being able to escape the eyes of Texas until Gabriel blows his horn are inscribed on the back. "In a city of weirdness it's one of the places I always take tourists," says Milburn.

Olmos speaks in a soft, slow voice. He almost always sounds calm. He insists that he's not being "short or evasive," but he rarely answers questions directly. When asked who owns the cemetery, he says, "An individual." When asked if the cemetery's registered agent, Mike W. Graham Jr. (who did not respond to written requests for an interview), is the owner, Olmos simply repeats that the cemetery is owned by an individual.

Ten years ago, Olmos custom-made $10,000 suits for ZZ Top during the post-"Sharp Dressed Man" era. He says he also designed costumes for Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet, but both opera and ballet spokespeople say no one in either costume department remembers Olmos or has a record of him.

When ZZ Top switched to jeans and T-shirts, Olmos says, he left his family's tailoring business to work with children at the St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelter in Aldine and taught catechism classes in Kingwood before becoming the vice president of operations at Hollywood.

"It's a ministry," says the 38-year-old. "A corporeal work of mercy: You feed the hungry, you clothe the sick, you bury the dead."

He says he works seven days a week and hasn't taken a vacation day since he started in November 2000. The cemetery is like a rest stop, he says. People pull off I-45 to use the bathroom, make a phone call, get directions or grab a Coke from the soda machine.

When asked about allegations families have made that loved ones have been misburied, he just repeats that "it's very sacred" and "it's very serious." "We don't trivialize it," he says. "We don't laugh about it here in the office."

He won't comment on allegations made by individual families; he says he respects the families' privacy. "The only information that I am going to give is to the families," he says. "I'm here to help the families."

The cemetery's records are not available to the Houston Press, he says. "It's not show-and-tell," he says. "I'm not trying to sound sad or morbid, but there's no buried treasure."

The Funeral Service Commission has a 48-page file on Hollywood Cemetery. Last spring, Deputy Administrator of Enforcement Anne Cosper investigated the concerns of seven families; in her preliminary report she wrote that "families believed their loved ones were either buried in the wrong plot, buried on top of someone else's grave, or with someone else buried over the grave of their loved one."

The investigation was kicked off when a television reporter contacted the commissioner about Rojas and Irene Longoria believing their loved ones were in the same grave. The commissioner suggested they look in section 25b of the death certificate, where funeral directors list the section, block and lot in which the deceased is buried. But the funeral homes had marked "unknown" on both death certificates.

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