Instead of the field of flowers Joseph Smith had envisioned, he saw dirt-covered grave markers and muddy tracks next to his beloved wife's burial site.
“You are expecting a place of calm, of peace, of the ability to come and just visit and remember your loved one, your partner, and it's been anything but that,” Joe said.
Joe met his wife Dianne when they were just 14 years old.
“I loved her from the moment I saw her walk out of my mother's 9th grade class,” he said.
They married at age 19 and were together for the next 53 years. They had four children and two grandchildren then seven years ago, Dianne was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She passed away on March 30, 2016.
“I'm trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces and go on with my life and that's not easy, not when you lose your partner,” said Joe.
What's made it harder for Joe and his daughter, is the recent condition of Columbia Memorial Park, Dianne’s final resting place.
“We both feel like we made such a terrible mistake with this selection and we both feel very bad about that, I know we do,” said Joe.
They chose the Howard County cemetery last February. There were a few maintenance things Joe didn't like but he was told it was all temporary.
“I had hoped to come here for a little bit of peace and to just chat with her a little and it's incredibly hard to do that,” said Joe.
Joe's most unhappy with the construction equipment operating feet away from his wife's grave. He voiced his complaints to the sales staff but hadn't heard anything from management about what would be done.
“It's just been a horrendous mess for this entire time, for 10 months now,” he said.\
Joe contacted ABC2 for help. StoneMar Partners, the corporation that owns Columbia Memorial Park along with 300 plus cemeteries across the country, declined an in-person interview but told ABC2 that crews addressed the problems over the weekend.
ABC2 Reporter Mallory Sofastaii went to check it out. She saw the grave markers had been cleared off, and a new path was made through the woods so construction equipment would no longer drive on the grass near Joe’s wife’s grave.
They also sent ABC2 this statement:
“Our goal and commitment is to help all of our families memorialize their loved ones with dignity. Please understand winter is a nasty task master for cemeteries – Egress was made multiple times inside of the section in question due to a high volume of burials within a short period of time. Wet conditions unfortunately impair our immediate attempts at ground restoration. The cemetery is in the process of constructing a plan to lessen these issues moving forward.”
Joe also notified the Office of Cemetery Oversight under the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Deborah Rappazzo is the executive director and investigated Joe's complaint.
“Unfortunately, they needed to go back and fix it maybe a little quicker than it was done, but it has been fixed. The memorials have been cleaned of the mud and debris,” said Rappazzo.
Not many know about the state office that aims to be a resource when it comes to death care. It’s been open since 1997, Rappazzo took over as executive director this month. She hopes more people will call her about any complaints but also with any questions.
“Where would you go to ask a question of death care? You'd probably talk to your family members and they only know if they've had that kind of experience, so I encourage everyone to come to our office if they have a question, and no question is too small,” she said.
She added that a common question they receive is about maintenance, which is something cemeteries permitted by the office are responsible for keeping up.
“That's under the perpetual care, and you know they cut the grass, they take the weed eater and go around the gravesites and to make the cemetery presentable for visitors to come and pay respect to their loved ones,” said Rappazzo.
They can't take away the burden of losing a loved one, but they try to make the process a little smoother.
“I can't wipe away what has happened, but I can sure help to try and get some resolution for them,” said Rappazzo.
If anyone would like contact Rappazzo, she can be reached at 410-230-6229 or 410-230-6228. For more information on the Office of Cemetery Oversight, click here.