Overbooking funerals presents problem

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 20, 2014

Warren County Sgt. Leroy Williams blocks traffic on Skyfarm Avenue Saturday for a funeral procession entering Cedar Hills Cemetery. Warren County deputies and Vicksburg police regularly provide escorts for funeral processions into and out of Vicksburg’s city cemetery.

Warren County Sgt. Leroy Williams blocks traffic on Skyfarm Avenue Saturday for a funeral procession entering Cedar Hills Cemetery. Warren County deputies and Vicksburg police regularly provide escorts for funeral processions into and out of Vicksburg’s city cemetery.

Overbooking funerals at Vicksburg’s Cedar Hill Cemetery has city officials looking for ways to ease the congestion caused when too many funerals are held at the same time and sometimes on adjacent plots in the cemetery.

The situation has forced Mayor George Flaggs Jr. to appoint a committee of funeral home directors, city officials, Police Chief Walter Armstrong and Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace to examine the problem.

He formed the committee after a meeting Monday of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, funeral directors, cemetery officials, Pace and Police Chief Walter Armstrong to discuss the situation. It is expected to report its recommendation on Aug. 13.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

The problem, city sexton Venable Moore said, is primarily in the cemetery’s new sections, marked Division N and Division Northwest F on the cemetery map.

“Those are the only open areas left where I am selling plots,” Moore said. “We average about 4 to 5 funerals (in those sections) on the weekends.” One weekend, he said, there were eight funerals at the cemetery.

Like the rest of the streets in the 177-year-old cemetery, the street splitting the new divisions are too narrow for two cars to safely pass, and there is no shoulder or parking area to where someone can get off the street to either visit a loved one or attend a funeral service.

“We’re all going to the same place in the cemetery (and) your cemetery is just about full,” said Charles Riles of Riles Funeral Home told Flaggs. “Our main problem is taking a funeral in (the cemetery) the same time that Brand X funeral home is taking a funeral in and we both converge on the cemetery at the same time.”

And that can create a problem for police officers and sheriff’s deputies escorting the funeral processions and working traffic to get the mourners where they want to be. Usually, Armstrong and Pace said, funeral details are handled by traffic divisions and involve four or five officers. Other officers, however, may be needed to block intersections along the funeral procession route, they said.

“If there are two funerals going on at the same time in the same cemetery, the officers at the cemetery will handle the traffic for both funerals,” Armstrong said. He estimated it costs his department from $35 to $40 per hour, including officer pay, insurance and fuel for the vehicles. Pace declined to release a cost.

Pace said there have been situations where there were more than one funeral in the same section of the city cemetery at the same time.

“More recently, we had one where the graveside services were literally feet apart. Both were 11 o’clock services, and I had four deputies tied up trying to meander cars through where we had two funerals literally going on at the same time,” he said. “You had two complete families angry at the city, at the funeral directors, the sheriff’s department, the police department, because everybody thinks it’s somebody else’s fault.”

Another time, the sheriff said, deputies had to hold up a 60-car funeral procession on Mission 66 to allow another funeral to leave the cemetery.

Flaggs suggested the city set designated funeral procession routes in and out of Cedar Hill as a way to reduce traffic congestion, recommending officers radio ahead to get the status of other services in the cemetery. Pace said that is already done, and Riles said the funeral homes contact Vicksburg-Warren 911 with the date and approximate time of funerals.

Pace suggested that Moore work with the funeral directors to develop a better system to schedule funerals and avoid conflicts.

Currently, Moore said, funeral homes fax their requests to the cemetery with a date and time for the service, and he locates the plot on the cemetery map, schedules the funeral and has the grave dug. He said he does not ask a funeral home to reschedule if another funeral is already scheduled for the same area.

Other cemeteries follow a policy of asking funeral homes to delay a service time to avoid conflicts.

Harry Sharp, owner of Greenlawn Gardens Cemetery, said the funeral homes must call before scheduling a funeral to make sure the cemetery is open. “We reserve the right to refuse a funeral at a specific time (if another funeral was previously scheduled at the same time),” Sharp said.

Leroy Robertson, cemetery superintendent for McComb’s four public cemeteries, said if he sees a potential conflict involving funerals on the same day at one of the cemeteries, he will ask the second funeral home to reschedule for a later time in the day.

“I ask them to talk to the families,” he said. “Usually when the funeral director calls, the family is in his office. They are usually agreeable.”

Ronnie Tomkins, manager of Jessamine Cemetery in Ridgeland, which is owned by the city, said he follows the same type policy.

“Our cemetery is very small, so we can’t have two funerals going on at the same time,” he said. “It’s not written policy, but when we have a funeral scheduled for a certain time, and another funeral home wants schedule a funeral at the same time, I will tell then we already have a funeral at that time and ask they move theirs back by an hour or two. They usually work with us.” He said Jessamine does not schedule funerals in Sunday.

“It has to do with time management,” Armstrong said. “Several funeral homes are having services at the same time. When that happens, it’s not what can the police do to make traffic flow better, (because) you’ve put too many vehicles in an area that can only hold so many vehicles.

“There’s only so much we can do other than be locked into a gridlock. Where this can be a real problem if there’s an emergency, then we’re going to have a real problem.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

email author More by John