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Cemetery Commission probes complaints about Shepherd Memorial Park

Karen Proffitt planned to pay respects at a headstone on Sunday, the second anniversary of her mother’s death. But like other people whose loved ones are buried in Shepherd Memorial Park, she learned that the cemetery was locked up.

“I’m 60 years old and I’ve never known those gates to be closed,” Proffitt said, attributing the action to Melody Shepherd, co-owner of Thos. Shepherd & Son Funeral Directors. “I don’t know what kind of game she’s playing but she’s hurting a lot of people. She can make the hours but Saturday and Sunday is the day people don’t work, when they go (visit loved ones’ graves). I don’t see how she can stop us if we bought those plots. That’s our land, those two plots.”
One day after good Samaritan landscapers mowed the overgrown cemetery grounds and trimmed weeds around headstones, the cemetery’s owners locked the gates.
“Effectively immediately and until further notice, due to recent events and threat to the safety of our staff and security of the property Shepherd Memorial Park will be closed on Saturdays and Sundays when there are no services in progress,” a sign said.
There was no explanation of the “threat” and security issues. The Lightning tried to reach Shepherd Memorial Park for comment. The voicemail box of the cemetery phone was full and unable to accept messages.
Proffitt filed a complaint with the N.C. Cemetery Commission, one of several the regulatory agency had received over the past week.
An official with the commission said that the board had received five complaints about the Asheville Highway cemetery on Monday.
“We did get five complaints in today regarding the grounds and the property being locked up over the weekend,” said the employee, who said she did not want to be identified for security reasons. “They have 20 business days to respond to us in writing. Because of the volume of complaints we’ve gotten, I anticipate they’ll probably be heading out there at some point.”

A member of the Cemetery Commission, Ebbie Whitley Hendren of Concord, said in an email response that she had read the Lightning's coverage of the cemetery problems.

"However, the Commissioners have not met since the article and there may be NCCC Shepherd complaints and details I have not reviewed," she said. "The community has really rallied behind these families. The volunteer landscapers are to be especially commended!"

Thos. Shepherd & Son Funeral Directors on Church Street has had its license suspended since last November. A hearing on numerous violations a state Board of Funeral Services inspector documented last summer could occur next month, the state agency’s director said earlier this month.
Evelyn Russell also planned to file a complaint about Shepherd Memorial Park on Monday.
“I went Mother’s Day and the grass was almost to my knees, could not see the markers, the vase on my grandmother’s grave was gone,” she said. “We have an ongoing problem with my grandfather’s grave sinking that they have never fixed and it has sunk even more.”
“I was greatly impressed with those gentlemen that took their time out and went out there and cut the grass and got no thanks from the people at Shepherd at all,” she said.
When she called the cemetery office, she got a call back from someone who shed light on part of the problem.
“The lady was very kind,” Russell said. “She said, ‘I’m so sorry. We have one groundskeeper out here that has to open all the graves when there’s a service, cut all the grass, take care of all the maintenance,’ and she said, ‘It’s just more than he can handle.’” Cemetery managers, the caller told Russell, advertised for help but could not get anyone to apply.

Landscapers step up


The bright side of the story was the work by two young landscape company owners who voluntarily mowed the graveyard.
Sam Byrnside and Aaron Owensby, owners of L&S Landscaping and A to Z Landscaping respectively, dropped a day of paid work and brought a crew of six to mow and weed whack every blade of grass.
“Well, Henderson County gave us so much support by calling us with landscaping needs,” Byrnside said. “As small business owners, we wanted to show our support to our community. We felt the need to step up (and show) that we’re here for everyone.”
Byrnside, 31, said as far as he knows he has no family members at the cemetery; most of his are at a family plot on Old Union Church Road in Edneyville.
“There was a lot” of land to cover, he said. “We had three mowers up and running and we had three weed-eaters at the same time.”
A few people who saw the crew working stopped by to thank the workers and the gratitude from families was spreading as fast as the grievances had.
“We thank them for all the kind words,” Byrnside said. “It really means a lot to us.”
Owensby, a 23-year-old East Henderson High School graduate, had a similar explanation for the act of paying back.
“We were just try to give back to the community that’s given us everything we had,” he said. “We felt like it was right to give back and try to do some good in a world that’s so negative right now.”
“l felt like it was right to give back to the community,” he said. “I felt like I gain more not really by losing money but helping people out more than anything.”