FARMINGTON — When Denise Lovato buried her younger brother at Memory Gardens in 2005, she purchased eight plots at the cemetery, pleased with its green lawns and well-kept plots.
In the last few years, she's been angered to see quality at the cemetery deteriorate — large swaths of the lawn are bleached white or gone altogether, headstones are sunken or leaning, and grounds are riddled with gopher holes and overgrown weeds.
She organized a protest on Tuesday, calling friends and posting her photos of her aunt and uncle's headstone on Facebook. More than 50 people, many of them plot owners at the cemetery, showed up Wednesday morning to view the grounds up close and confront management there over the lack of upkeep.
Ernest Martinez, regional manager for Serenity and Company, the Phoenix, Ariz., company that has owned Memory Gardens since 2011, addressed the crowd and took questions and listened to complaints for 30 minutes.
Denise Lovato's husband, Tony Lovato, said he heard only excuses.
"Let me ask you, would you bury your folks here?" he asked the regional manager.
"No, sir," Ernest Martinez replied.
Dalene Martinez, whose parents are buried at the cemetery, attended the protest and addressed Ernest Martinez, who is not related, directly.
"We're what you live on," she told him. "Because if none of us were here, who would take care of this? This is a dying generation, here, of people who take care of their families' graves. We're what you live on because we're the ones who care what happens. But these people are gone. They paid for these services, thinking, 'We're always going to be taken care of,' and I think that's what any of us want here is just for them to always be taken care of whether we're here to fight for them or not because they cannot fight for themselves.
Lynn Rupp bought three plots last year and became visibly upset Wednesday when she voiced her displeasure.
"The grass on my three graves, my son's and my husband's, is dead," Rupp told him. "The stones are sitting cock-eyed — my son's has sunk that much — and it's upsetting, very upsetting. Bury a son and bury a husband at 50 years old and see how you feel."
Ernest Martinez said everything from water-supply issues to the drought accounted for the poor conditions of the grounds.
"The cemetery was purchased 30 months ago," he told those gathered near Lovato's relatives headstone. "We have had nothing but obstacles and challenges. We are addressing each obstacle as it comes to us. We haven't had a whole lot of rain. We did inherit some huge problems."
The cemetery was purchased by its present owner, Jerry Guttman, from Daniels Family Funeral Services in 2011. Guttman declined to comment on the protest in an email exchange with The Daily Times on Wednesday.
Johnny Vialpando told Ernest Martinez that after burying his son last May at the cemetery he has watched the grounds get worse. He said he had stopped by to sit beside his son's grave on his lunch hours, but lately has had mixed feelings about the place he chose to bury his son.
"I asked the management to plant some grass on my son's plot, there's nothing but weeds, it's awful," he said. "I used to come by to sit by my son for quiet time, but it's gotten to be so depressing I don't want to come by anymore. I was so disappointed. I called and raised Cain, but I got nothing but excuses."
Ernest Martinez told those gathered that one of the owners would be visiting from Phoenix on July 22, and he would be willing to reassemble for a meeting on the grounds at the cemetery at 11 a.m. on that day.
"If it looked like this ... there's absolutely no way I would have paid for a plot," Denise Lovato said. "I don't know if they don't care, don't have a clue, or what. But I don't know because the owner hasn't called me back."
Later at home, Lovato got back on her phone and computer.
While she said she waited to hear back from Guttman, she created a Facebook group called Memory Gardens Protesters. Within an hour, 101 people joined the group.
"That tells me there's a lot of pissed off people," she said. "When we purchased the eight plots, never in a million years did I think the cemetery would turn out like this, basically a prairie dog-and-wasp-infested rat hole. Martinez said he'd been running the place for 30 months. That's two and half years — that's plenty of time. Nothing but excuses."