Grave Injustice

Do those who bury loved ones in Boca Raton's public cemetery have the right to decorate graves and erect markers? Apparently not.

If you're lucky enough to be buried in Section A on the west side of Boca Raton's Municipal Cemetery, you might eternally lie beneath the broad shade of two colossal banyan trees or, at the very least, rest among speckled granite and monochromatic color schemes. You could also rest amid city pioneers and other noted townsfolk. This section boasts another bonus: exemption from cemetery rules, which prohibit memorials, monuments, or enclosures aboveground everywhere else in the cemetery. Panning across the west end reveals further evidence of its privileged status: pricey polished crosses, marble columns, and even a ten-foot-high hulking monument honoring Boca's World War II vets.

The east side of the cemetery lacks that kind of history but makes up for that lack with devout diversity. Virgin Mary statues gaze over gravesites; red-robed Jesuses extend forgiving hands toward heaven, their Sacred Hearts almost glowing from their chests. There are also Sabbath candles, Stars of David, and other stuff exhibited on the east side that one might find in any Miami botánica or Judaica shop. But this ain't Miami. It's Boca. One might think that a city often blasted for its homogeneity would welcome a chance to embrace ethno-religious icons in its public cemetery and that its rules should apply to all plots, regardless of size or location. Maybe a moneyed city like Boca Raton shouldn't meddle with one's constitutional right to freedom of expression or the way families honor their dead. East-side plot owners thought some of this and more.

Last year the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against the City of Boca Raton on behalf of seven families seeking to protect their loved ones' gravesites from the city's agenda: to tear down all of the east side's upright markers, including simple crosses, Jewish stars, ceramic angels, even children's shrines adorned with toy trucks and baby blocks.

Little statues, big stink: Attorney Charlotte Danciu safeguards her grandparents' gravesite
Melissa Jones
Little statues, big stink: Attorney Charlotte Danciu safeguards her grandparents' gravesite

The lawsuit is the first brought under Florida's new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects a person's religious practices from needless government intrusion. But the city claims its cemetery's rules aren't aimed at religion, just at its visage. In Boca's cemetery, religious markers are OK; it's when they stand up to be counted that the city grumbles. Even odder is the city's sudden urge to enforce rules disregarded since the early '80s. Plaintiffs also say no one ever gave them a copy of cemetery regulations. The owners never questioned whether their markers were allowed, because when they first bought their plots, they saw all sorts of vertical shrines and monuments dotting the east and west sides of the cemetery.

"On the west side they still have these huge granite crosses, and I think they are beautiful," testified Souhail Karram, a plaintiff named in the suit, who buried his wife, Pamela, in a plot on the east side. Impressed with the cemetery's gardenlike atmosphere, Karram purchased 15 additional plots and set about planting lavender heather and placing a modest wooden border around the grave of his wife of 39 years. Because he and his family are Christians, Karram erected a white wooden cross on the grave as well.

"Standing up there it tells you a lot. It gives you hope that one day… we will meet our loved ones again. It is comforting," said Karram, who added that workers and the cemetery manager at the time admired the way he tended his wife's plot. "When I told him what I was going to do,… he said, 'Do what you want.' They would come and look and say, 'Oh, it is beautiful.' Nobody ever said to me, 'You cannot do this or you can't do that.'"

Boca Raton lawyer Charlotte Danciu wasn't aware that her own grandparents' gravesites could be desecrated until plaintiffs first approached her seeking legal counsel. Besides volunteering as one of the ACLU's attorneys for the case, Charlotte Danciu is also the daughter of Eleanor Danciu, one of the plaintiffs. The Danciu plots were initially bought in 1984 when Charlotte's grandmother died; a Virgin Mary was placed upon her east-side grave as was a bronze double headstone. After Charlotte's grandfather's death in 1994, the family added a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi to the gravesites.

"My mother probably goes there every day. We go on Sundays and holidays, gather around the grave, pray to the Virgin Mary," says Charlotte Danciu. "Now the City of Boca says we can't."

What the city says can conflict with what it does. Besides the city's nonenforcement of cemetery rules for more than 15 years, there's a strange discordance behind the city's reasons for leveling the east side.

Bruce Rogow, legal counsel for Boca Raton, conveys that one of the city's objections to vertical markers is that they hinder burials because they obstruct the machines used for digging. "It's very narrow between plots. Let's assume that people put up all kinds of these shrines and it comes time to bury someone. What are you going to do? Are you going to break [surrounding] headstones to bury people?" asks Rogow. He explains that Section A of the cemetery is exempt from the rules because it contains larger gravesites with easier access. Rogow says that these west-side graves also escape regulation because they were moved from other burial places and were already marked. "They, of course, kept the same kind of headstones; those gravesites were grandfathered in," he says.

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