Funeral Directors, Families Unhappy with Policies at Putnam/St Mary Cemeteries

This story was updated on Thursday, Nov 18 with a response from Vincent Graziano about alleged mark-ups on vaults.

In Greenwich, funeral home directors and families are unhappy about policies and new fees being charged by the Catholic Cemeteries of the Diocese of Bridgeport, including St Mary Cemetery and Putnam Cemetery who are tax exempt.

Vincent Graziano from Coxe & Graziano Funeral Home said a winter fee, vault fee and internment fee were examples of new fees.

He also complained the grounds at St. Mary and Putnam Cemeteries are not well taken care of. “There are potholes. They’re not taking care of the grounds.”

“There is a one-time perpetual care fee when you purchase a cemetery plot or grave,” Graziano explained. “They are supposed to put it in an endowment fund to maintain the cemetery – to mow the lawn, maintain the roadways and so on.”

The State of Connecticut requires the Diocese to maintain a perpetual care fund. The fund goes into an endowment, and the interest covers maintenance including mowing, road maintenance and record keeping.

“The money goes into that fund, unless they raided it,” he said. “Are they balancing a budget, paying legal bills at the expense of the families?”

“It’s unconscionable. There’s a skeleton crew. They can’t even help you with a flower. There’s no service for the basic $1,800 fee. They are gouging the families. Their fees are exorbitant.”

Milbank family mausoleum at Putnam Cemetery.

Graziano described grieving families as a captive audience.

“It’s repeat business. A mother will go where the father is,” he continued. “Those are the people getting gouged – the people with family plots….They’re charging $3,800 to $4,000 to open a grave – and if it’s Saturday it could be another $750.”

Graziano said there were also problems with service.

“They don’t allow their people to even touch the casket. At any cemetery there are typically six men waiting to take the casket to the grave. If you don’t have your own six men, they’ll get six men at $150 each, double the normal pall bearer rate. These guys work five minutes for $150.”

Graziano said by contrast, at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery and Greenwood Union Cemetery, both in Rye, NY, there are men available to take the casket to the grave site. “But here the men stand there like zombies and won’t even help you. It’s all about add-on fees,” he said.

“If the grave is double depth, they charge $1,200 to go another foot and a half. No cemetery does that,” he added.

Matthew Murphy, Funeral Director/Proprietor at Fred D Knapp & Son Funeral Home, said he’s hearing complaints from families as well.

“I deal with families with plots in Putnam Cemetery they bought 70 years ago,” Murphy said. “And now all the rules and regulations have changed.”

Resting place of Sanna Scraper Borge and Victor Borge at Putnam Cemetery. Oct 22,2021 Photo: Leslie Yager

“I had a burial a year ago. We buried the husband at double depth. Then they charged more for the second burial, and an additional internment fee of $450, which is a new fee,” Murphy said.

“What are they doing with the money?” Graziano wondered, going on to list some of the fees families have been charged.

“Now there’s a winter fee of $200,” Graziano said. “And a use of road fee. Their charge for a grave opening is exorbitant to begin with. And then they have add-ons. They require a concrete vault be used at the burial, then they charge the vault company $200 to deliver it and use the road. Then the vault company charges the funeral home who obviously charges the family.”

Also, he said one client had to remove ashes in a box. “They wanted to charge $800 for a ‘disinterment,'” he said. “It’s highway robbery.”

“It’s unconscionable and they want the families to go there directly. Fine. If I told the people these charges they’d blame me.  Be my guest you explain it to them, but (funeral homes) have to be the messenger in many cases.”

“They charge $500 to $600 for an inscription on a crypt, but it’s applied lettering. It’s not even engraved, and they charge $1,800 to open that crypt,” Graziano said.

Murphy agreed. “They want the families to make the arrangements directly with (the families) to get them in the door and sell them inscriptions.”

Mr. Murphy said monument companies are experiencing delays with the cemeteries installing foundations.

“Cemeteries have to install a foundation under a monument. If you don’t buy the stone through them, and you buy it through an outside monument company, they’ve having trouble with how long it takes to get the foundations put in,” he said.

Like Graziano, Murphy also mentioned a new road maintenance fee charged when a vault truck comes in. “It’s basically a back door fee,” he said.

Final resting place of Prescott Bush in Putnam Cemetery.

Cemetery Response

Joseph McCurdy, who works in sales and marketing for the Bridgeport Diocese cemeteries, acknowledged new fees had been implemented in recent years, including a winter fee and a vault fee.

He explained the vault fee was necessary due to the damage caused by vault trucks.

“When a vault truck comes into the cemetery, down an aisle within the cemetery with a 10,000 lb vehicle, it makes ruts on our grounds,” McCurdy said. “And they don’t come in once. They come in twice, (the second time) to put the top on.”

McCurdy said the cemeteries are not allowed to sell vaults. “Only licensed funeral directors are allowed to sell vaults,” he said, adding that the cemetery vault fee was $175.

Ken Devane, a consultant to the Catholic Cemeteries of the Diocese of Bridgeport and Mr. McCurdy pointed a finger back at the funeral homes, who McCurdy said make a single call to a vault company and then mark up the price.

“The funeral directors sell a vault to the family and tell them the Catholic cemeteries require a concrete vault and say, ‘Here are two or three options.’ Mostly (families) chose a concrete liner that runs in the $350 range, and then (the funeral homes) charge a 400% markup,” McCurdy said.

In response, Mr. Graziano said vaults were not marked up 400%, and that the church, a non-profit, is not allowed to compete with small businesses.

As for the complaint about delays installing foundations, Mr. Devane said there absolutely was not a slow down on their end.

“It takes time to pour a foundation. We tell families to expect it to take 45 to 60 days. We wait until there are five or six to pour,” Devane said. “You need a concrete truck, and it won’t come with less than 6 yards of concrete. We usually wait until we have a few.”

As for the winter fee, McCurdy said it was implemented a couple years ago to reflect the additional labor and equipment required when the ground is frozen.

“To jack hammer the ground up to get to the location for a full body internment and charge for a cremation internment during the winter months, it is $100 for cremation and $200 fee for full body internment in a coffin,” he said. “When the field is covered with snow and someone is being buried with a coffin, we have to clear a path, get a bulldozer in to use the backhoe to dig, to put a vault and coffin in, and chop through snow and ice.”

As for the perpetual care fund, McCurdy said it should be considered the fund is held in perpetual trust and is key when a cemetery becomes historic. Four of their 14 cemetery locations are historic, meaning there are no remaining spots to sell, while maintenance continues to be an expense.

“The perpetual care goes into effect when a cemetery becomes historic,” he said. “A historic cemetery is not bringing in any revenue.”

Offices for Putnam and St Mary Cemeteries are housed in the stone building in foreground. White cottage in background is rented to a family. Tree tagged in foreground is part of the arboretum which people are invited to admire. September 1, 2021 Photo: Leslie Yager

Beyond maintaining the grounds, McCurdy said Catholic Cemeteries of the Diocese have invested in upgrading their cemetery offices and the cottage that houses their sales office on Parsonage Rd.

Also, he said, last year they completed a 350 foot drainage project. They also purchased their own asphalt machine and recently finished asphalting a mile of road.

Beyond those improvements, he said there were exciting plans to become a Class 2 Arboretum. Toward that end, this year they have planted more than 100 trees at Putnam Cemetery alone.

“Most of the trees are tagged with their Latin name,” McCurdy said. “We’re half way there.”

McCurdy went on to list other positive steps and upgrades.

He said residents are encouraged to visit the lovely grounds, and residents make walks through the cemetery part of their daily routines.

“There are dog cleaning stations and people are invited to walk their dogs with a leash,” he said. “People also are allowed to ride their bicycles through the cemetery.”

“We work with local funeral directors every day,” Devane said. “Some of them feel competitive with selling monuments. They probably sell more than us, but we sell them. We don’t sell vaults, caskets or flowers.”

Brian Wallace – Director of Communications for the Diocese, said the criticism from the funeral directors stung.

“The bishop has met with the funeral directors in the past. The last thing we want is this kind of conflict or hardship (with the funeral homes). They serve the people of this area.”

“It’s a time of profound change in the American way of death, he explained. “It’s a shame that they’re adversarial. We hope to work with them as in the past.”

“From the bishop’s point of view, these are sacred grounds,” Wallace said. “That’s why the bishop made these changes to bring the cemeteries into contemporary era and best use of resources.”

Wallace said the goal was to upgrade the beauty of the cemeteries, improve services, welcome people in, and respond to people’s needs when they lose someone they love.

Flowers in the community mausoleum at Putnam/St Mary cemeteries.

What is Tasteful?

Gerry Dipaola, a longtime Greenwich resident, said it was an Italian tradition to put a photo of a loved one on a mausoleum. He said his mother died recently, and his father died 12 years ago. Years before they died, his parents purchased space in the mausoleum at St. Mary/Putnam Cemetery.

“They paid a one-time fee and paid it in full,” he said. “They paid cash.”

Mr. Dipaola said put up a picture of his parents in the mausoleum, but it vanished.

“It was up for a month and a half….Then, I thought it was kids who stole it. …In the (cemetery) office, they said, ‘Do you want the picture back?’ I said, ‘What? No.'”

“I’m so upset. It’s terrible. They can’t rest in peace.”

Another longtime Greenwich resident, Neil Monick, had a similar experience. He said because of a new policy at Putnam/St. Mary Cemetery the memorial portrait of his parents was pried off by cemetery workers.

Monick said the acrylic picture of his parents holding champagne glasses was removed without notice. His parents had purchased the plot 20 years earlier. His mother died in 2014; his father in 2019.

“It wasn’t cheap either. It had been on the grave stone inside the mausoleum for quite a few years. One of the workers was there who I happened to know, and I asked what happened to the picture. He said, ‘We took it down. It’s a policy.'”

“You can see the missing oval where the picture was,” he said.

In response to their complaints, the Monicks were offered a chance to purchase a bronze framed porcelain picture of their parents to replace the one removed.

The Monicks said they were both sad and angry the picture was removed without their consent and that then they were asked to pay to have the same image reprinted, framed and installed.

They sent a digital copy of the photo that was removed to Catholic Cemeteries of the Diocese of Bridgeport.

“I asked, ‘How would you like me to desecrate your parent’s gravestone?’ My vision is him with a putty knife scraping away my parents’ picture. The place is getting gout of hand. It’s disrespectful to families,” he said, adding that he was told his parents’ photo was in a drawer in the cemetery office. “It’s no respect for the dead.”

Families leave balloons, flags, and artificial flowers at the community mausoleum at Putnam / St Mary Cemeteries.

“And they don’t like fresh flowers,” Monick said. “If you bring them in, they vanish. Only plastic flowers.”

Mr. McCurdy explained the policies about photos and fresh flowers.

“When a family purchases a crypt they are handed a rules and regulations booklet which states they can’t put whatever they want on the shutter front, which is the marble front where the name is, after the casket is interred,” he said, adding that only the name, date of birth and death go on the shutter front.

“We do offer a cameo. We use Paradise Pictures,” McCurdy added. “Some people put up an 18×24 picture of great grandfather. Some people’s junk is another’s trash.”

McCurdy said he receives just as many phone calls from families complaining about personal items families leave in front of crypts as complaints about what has been removed.

As for flowers in our mausoleums, there are center racks for flowers, vases, pictures and candles. Many times people come in on walkers or wheelchairs, and we want to keep the floor clear so no one trips,” McCurdy said. “That’s what people get upset about. How can we let you scotch tape a picture onto a vault space, but not let the next person do it? We don’t go around ripping things down, but we try to tell people what the regulations are.”

“We finally had to kind of go in and follow the rules because perhaps someone else complained and asked, ‘Why can’t I?'”

“We’re not trying to upset people,” explained Mr. Wallace, the Diocese communications director.

“At the end of winter, we have to take the winter decorations off because we’re moving into spring. People get upset about that too,” he added.

Mr. Wallace said people decorate their family member’s resting place with wreaths and Christmas trees. Some families hang balloons and lights from the trees or put balloons on the floor in front of a crypt.

“How do you say to them that your family member is not important?” Wallace asked. “We politely let it stay up for a while.”

“It’s like living in an apartment building one person cooks spicy foods,” McCurdy said. “In a mausoleum, we only allow fake flowers.  What happens is the family will leave real flowers in a vase and flies come and animals, then it’s up to us to remove all of it. They become unsightly.”

McCurdy, Devane and Wallace all said they regretted any hurt feelings.

“How do you decide what’s right or wrong? That’s what we do,” Devane said. “There’s no right or wrong. You do as good as you can. It is sacred ground. Respect as many people as you can and try not to offend.”

“Ask the funeral directors how the movement to more cremations versus in ground burials has impacted them,” Devane said. “If a lot of people are not buying coffins, that’s an area where they’d be hurt regarding revenue.”

“We have to work with them every day. Some of them feel competitive with selling monuments. They probably sell more than us, but we sell them,” Devane added.

Roadway at Putnam Cemetery in Greenwich.
Roadway at Putnam Cemetery in Greenwich.
J Stedman Converse Mausoleum at Putnam Cemetery.
Putnam Cemetery in Greenwich.
Roadway in Putnam Cemetery.
Mausoleum at Putnam Cemetery in Greenwich.