CEDAR FALLS — On anniversaries, birthdays and holidays, sisters Krista Dreyer and Kari Smith visit and decorate the grave sites of their late mother, father and other relatives buried at Greenwood Cemetery, which overlooks the Cedar River just west of downtown.
They add something new every year, and Smith adds a duplicate decoration to her own Evansdale yard.
“It’s a way to keep us all connected,” Smith said.
On the anniversary of their mother’s death Monday, the pair arrived to find their decorations — a commemorative plaque, a string of bells, pinwheels, wind chimes and more — all gone.
They were gone from the other graves, too, and the sisters found most of it in a Dumpster on the property.
Calls to the cemetery’s caretaker, Kevin Cross, yielded mixed messages, said the sisters, who said he first didn’t admit to knowing where the decorations went, then theorized things could have been stolen. Finally, Dreyer said, he admitted cemetery staff cleared all the decorations out, citing a Cedar Falls ordinance.
A search by the pair and their families found decorations piled up in and around the Dumpster by the cemetery’s maintenance shed — everything from piles of shepherd’s hooks, planters with artificial flowers, metal signs in the shape of crosses, angels and bicycles and more — stuck in the ground by the trash bin, free for the taking.
“(Cross) said, ‘Oh, we do this every year.’ I said, ‘Well, no you don’t,’” said Dreyer, of Waterloo. “This has never happened in 19 years.”
The City of Cedar Falls has had an ordinance on the books prohibiting decorations at the city’s three cemeteries three days after Memorial Day for “probably 20 or 30 years,” said Mark Ripplinger, director of municipal operations and programs, which oversees the cemeteries.
“Things not permanently affixed are required to be removed,” Ripplinger said. “The purpose for that is it becomes inefficient for staff to mow.”
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But he conceded Smith and Dreyer were right.
“In the past, we were probably pretty lax in enforcing it,” Ripplinger said, noting cemetery staff would move items to mow and replace them afterwards. “What we’re running into now — that takes quite a bit of time to do that.”
Ripplinger said Cross had received around 20 calls as of Tuesday, about half from visitors outraged at the enforcement and the other half happy because the cemeteries had become “unkempt.”
“I certainly want to apologize for the City of Cedar Falls and ... our poor communication with the public,” Ripplinger said. “We know this is very emotional for people.”
He said cemetery staff had not thrown anything away besides dead or loose plastic flowers, and the rest had been set up along fence lines at Greenwood, Fairview and Hillside cemeteries. Those with questions about their items should call Cross at 273-8629 or stop at the cemetery in person, Ripplinger said.
“We do make efforts that anything that was removed (is) still available,” he said.
After Dreyer made her ordeal public on Facebook, she said the city apologized. But the sisters are still upset with how it was handled, especially that no notice was given that the ordinance would now be strictly followed.
“It’s very upsetting,” Smith said, as she and other family members attempted to sort through the decorations to find their own. “People come here on a regular basis and place things because it means something.”
Now, their mother’s grave is just a stone with words.
“You’re kind of forcing someone to grieve in a particular way,” Dreyer said.