World War II soldier Charles Stewart has been buried at Beersheba cemetery west of York for 62 years. He died in the war, and his body was sent home to family.
He is buried near his parents and sister.
The Stewart family has tended the graves and kept the concrete borders around the graves nice for generations.
No more - the borders are gone. The Beersheba Cemetery Association has begun enforcing new rules that do not allow adornments on or near headstones.
The Stewart family is furious, as are other families embroiled in a dispute over how Beersheba graves are supposed to look and who makes that decision.
The fight, which appears headed for court, pits the cemetery association in charge of the grounds against families who have buried their dead in ground that has been the final stop for York County people dating back before the Revolutionary War.
The battle is even raging within families themselves - the president of the cemetery association is Charles Marvin Goforth Sr., nephew of Charles Stewart, who died in the war.
The graves of Goforth's grandparents are also in violation. The borders around those graves are gone.
The cemetery association maintains it has every right to enforce rules, amended in recent years, that do not allow borders, gravel or other additions to headstones. Even flowers are against the rules, according to letters sent to families.
Many families have balked, saying that the rules have been changed only recently after years - even generations - of grave-tending.
Just in the past two weeks, York County sheriff's deputies have responded to the cemetery at least three times as the simmering dispute boiled over, and a Dec. 11 deadline loomed for families to rid gravesites of extras.
Cemetery officials in the last few days began removing additions, such as concrete borders next to plots.
"This is the most hurtful thing I have experienced in quite some time," said Fred Stewart Sr., 83, brother of Charles Stewart. "My brother's remains have been there since he was brought back from Germany. My father has been dead and buried since 1964. My mother since 1955."
Charles Stewart's niece, Sara Curry, whose mother is buried in the same family plot, said she was despondent at her "family history ... being ripped away."
The border was put up decades ago to stop erosion on a little rise in the landscape, said Curry's cousin, Fred Stewart Jr., and hasn't been an issue - until now. He described what the cemetery association is doing as "history and dignity being ripped up."
A festering dilemma
Angie Redden and Jackie Patterson have sons buried in graves near each other in the cemetery adjacent to historic Beersheba Presbyterian Church six miles west of York. They are at the center of the controversy that has been going on for months.
Patterson's son, Jamie, died in 1996. Patterson said she has had a solar cross and other items on the grave since then. The Patterson family, which has other members buried in the same cemetery, has for years had gravel around a plaque that lies flat on the ground.
But this summer, Patterson clashed with cemetery officials over the grave. In August, deputies responded to an argument between Patterson and one of the people who maintained the cemetery, who told her about rules for the graves.
"They want the stones removed," Jackie Patterson said, "and all the other things we have had up for so long. Nobody bothered us for 14 years."
Angie Redden's son, Shane Wallace, has been buried at the cemetery since December 2005. A rock plot surrounded by concrete borders has been around the stones for years, said Redden.
"Nobody had a problem with it," Redden said. "I was out here all the time."
The two women met while at the cemetery grieving their lost children, and both received letters from the cemetery association in November stating each had 30 days to remove what they had at graveside.
The letters cited regulations that changed in May 2009 and said that if changes were not made by the families, the cemetery association would "take all steps necessary to bring it into compliance."
That compliance started last week, when the stone garden and border from Shane Wallace's grave were removed.
"I just want my son's grave to be left alone," said Redden. "I am so upset."
The women have spoken to lawyers and magistrates to see what can be done. Redden and Patterson spoke to another lawyer late this week and said legal action could be the next step.
The affected families are upset with cemetery association for changing the rules long after the grave additions have been in place.
One former cemetery association member, Nancy Wyatt, said she resigned from the board because "they are always changing the rules."
Laurie Webber Zeisel, whose great-uncle's grave has had a border for more than 40 years, said she served as cemetery association secretary twice in the 1980s. During that time, there was no ban on grave additions such as borders.
Zeisel is "appalled" that the cemetery association has not only changed the rules but gone forward with moving items from near graves.
"It is a desecration," she said.
Association: Rules are rules
The letters to Redden and Patterson telling them that action would be taken if the gravesites were not changed came from Charles Bradford, a lawyer in York who represents the cemetery association.
The items on any of the graves are against the rules of the cemetery no matter when they were put up, Bradford said, and any changes require the approval of the cemetery association.
Cemetery officials declined to comment on why the rules were changed. Bradford would refer only to the letter, which doesn't state a reason for the change.
People who bury family members there do not "buy real estate," said Bradford, and therefore cannot do as they please to grave areas.
"They don't own the dirt," Bradford said.
About 10 other letters were sent to "nonconforming gravesite owners," Bradford wrote in the letters to Redden and Patterson's former lawyer.
Bradford said he advised the cemetery association that if it tried to enforce the decision to mandate removal of graveside materials, they could expect a lawsuit.
Ultimately, it might be up to the courts to decide, Bradford said, although the families have made concerns public and are trying to exert public pressure against the association.
Bradford said he advised association members to call police if they felt threatened while doing what the cemetery association believes it has the right to do.
Charles Marvin Goforth Sr., the president of the cemetery association board whose own grandparents' graves are at issue, declined to comment about the association's decision to remove graveside materials.
Goforth called police on Dec. 9 to what was described as a "disturbance," claiming that Patterson and others showed up and took pictures to "harass" him and cemetery maintenance workers.
The Stewart family called police Dec. 11 after finding workers taking away the concrete borders.
In that incident, a deputy asked the cemetery workers to keep any removed items and not destroy anything until the dispute could be resolved, said Lt. Mike Baker, spokesman for the sheriff's office.
Goforth called police again Tuesday, asking for an "escort" while work was being done at the cemetery.
"We have been out there and advised each time over the past week or more that this is a civil dispute," said Baker of the sheriff's office. "Emotions are high."
Restrictions not uncommon
Cemeteries typically have rules that govern whether borders, flowers or anything else can be added because this kind of issue can come up, said Tim McLoughlin, manager of Rock Hill's Grandview Memorial Park.
Rules are usually up to a specific cemetery. It's not uncommon for such rules to prohibit additions to grave sites with few exceptions, McLoughlin said.
Rock Hill, which administers three cemeteries, has specific rules concerning any additions and allows almost no adornments, said Darryl Baine, who runs the three cemeteries.
At Rock Hill Memorial Garden, located adjacent to Bass-Cauthen Funeral Home, strict rules are in place that do not allow borders or other additions, said Danny Gibson, manager of Bass-Cauthen. Those rules have been in place since the cemetery was opened in 1995.
In the case of Beersheba, where some graves have had borders for years, Gibson said he does not know how the cemetery can change the rules and order the removal of something that has been in place for generations.
McLoughlin, Baine and Gibson said their cemeteries maintain ownership of the land; it does not transfer to families who bury a loved one there. That's one of Bradford's points in arguing for the Beersheba cemetery association's policy.
The dispute between some of the families and the cemetery association has prompted a petition drive among people who have family members buried at Beersheba to try to change the leadership of the cemetery association.
The Stewart family, like Angie Redden and Jackie Patterson, is considering filing a lawsuit against the cemetery association - and in doing so, they would be suing Goforth, a member of their own family.
Fred Stewart Jr., the retired band director at York Comprehensive High School who spent three decades teaching children how to respect each other, said the family relationship is not the issue. The issue is preserving the dignity of the graves of the deceased - family or not.
"It seems difficult to believe they can go back and change now," Stewart said of the cemetery association. "But it appears that is exactly what they have done. And my family is very upset about it."