Where the dead have no names

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ST. THOMAS ­- Lydia Martin installed her husband's remains in a vault at Smith Bay Eastern Cemetery in 2007.

For the last six years, whenever she visited him, she would make a point of apologizing to him and to the dead in other vaults for her unsuccessful efforts to get the V.I. Public Works Department to mark their plots with headstones.

The 149 plots in two vaults near the entrance to the cemetery have never had headstones. The rows of blank, gray concrete squares contain no names or dates and bear no decorations.

The $1,514 that Public Works charged the families of the deceased for the plots includes the cost of a headstone, and the department assumes responsibility for its installation.

However, issues with the surface of the vaults at the time of construction in 2006 have prevented the department from fulfilling this duty to the deceased and their families, according to Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls.

That excuse offers little solace for the families of the people buried there.

"It's embarrassing for the dead. It's disgusting. Where else in the world do you go and see the dead treated like this," Martin said. "I talk to them every time I go. I tell them: 'I am so sorry. I am doing everything I can.' "

Martin said that, like many with loved ones in the plots, she had marked her husband's plot by inscribing his name, birth date and death date, in the wet concrete after the installation of his remains.

She was aghast when she found two years ago that Public Works had removed the inscription and all others like it.

After a funeral parlor told her that she could not purchase and install a headstone for Smith Bay Eastern Cemetery, she said those markings were the only way to identify her husband's plot.

At one point, she said, she had to use photographs from 2007 to identify which of the anonymous plots contained her husband's remains. In 2011, her niece's remains were placed in another plot, and the families' inscriptions have been similarly erased.

"To me, it's a breach of contract," she said. "When you go to Public Works to purchase the grave site, you pay for the vault and you also pay for the headstone. You can't just go and put on your own headstone because they say they want everything unified."

In addition, the department has removed any headstones families had installed on their own.

The headstone for Patricia I. Cyntje Hodge, who died in May 2010, was one of those. It had been cast aside and last week was propped up near a tree on the edge of the parking lot.

Patrick Hodge, Patricia's son, said no one from Public Works had notified him or his brother, Wayne, prior to the headstone's removal.

"I feel hurt because I think it's something they should have contacted us about beforehand," Wayne Hodge said. The headstone cost between $1,500 and $2,000 and was shipped from Puerto Rico, he said.

Wayne Hodge said he had contacted Athneil Vanterpool, the Smith Bay Eastern Cemetery director for Public Works, after its removal and Vanterpool had told him that all burial contracts with the department include the installation of a headstone.

"I paid to have the headstone put in place, and it was well placed," Patrick Hodge said. "I don't see why in the world they would go to the trouble to destroy what somebody did."

Smalls said the vault's original exterior was "not to the department's quality standard," and the surface of the plots does not allow for the installation of uniform headstones.

This "quality control" issue was further complicated by the unauthorized marking of the plots with paint and engravings and the installation of non-department issued headstones, according to Smalls.

The department had to erase any markings on the plots and take down headstones during a "resurfacing" of the plots that was completed in December, Smalls said.

The resurfacing evened out the exterior surface and standardized the dimensions of the plots so that they could accommodate headstones. The department had to wait until all the plots were filled before resurfacing them, which is why it has taken six years to fulfill that part of the burial contracts, according to Smalls.

In the next 45 days, the department will work "feverishly" to install headstones, Smalls said Tuesday.

Smalls did not return subsequent phone calls from The Daily News seeking comment on the cost of the vault's resurfacing, making it unclear whether the original contractor will be held liable for the faulty exterior or whether the department will incur new costs related to the resurfacing.

Smalls said the headstones would be made by Performance Construction, and so far the company has been able to reach about 35 families to verify the proper information. If not all families can be reached, the department will install headstones for those who have verified their information, he said.

"I empathize with the families, and I agree that this has taken way too long. However, the department is committed to and is currently in the process of having these headstones reconstructed," Smalls said.

During an interview, Smalls repeatedly took issue with the plots being described as "unmarked" on the basis that the department had kept records of who was buried in the plots.

"I am telling you, they are not unmarked. They have been resurfaced," Smalls said. "If you have a wall and it has graffiti on it, and you go in and you paint over the graffiti, is it unmarked or did you cover the graffiti?"

Martin said she had contacted Public Works officials at least three times since 2007 to rectify the situation. At no point did anyone tell her that the department was waiting for the plots to be filled, she said.

The only explanation Smalls and Tanya Cleone Creque Hodge, the director of cemeteries, gave her was that the department wanted all the headstones to be uniform.

In August 2011, Smalls told her the department would have headstones installed by November 2011, she said.

After The Daily News made phone calls to Public Works about the situation last week, Martin said an employee of Performance Construction contacted her Monday to set up an appointment to review all the information for her husband's headstone.

Martin said she was glad Public Works appears to be taking measures to correct the situation, but after years of unsuccessful petitioning, she remains cautiously optimistic.

"I will not feel any sense of closure until I actually see the headstone go up," she said.

- Contact Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email anorris@dailynews.vi.

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