The wives and mothers left the grave sites of their relatives and walked across the rolling lawn of the cemetery to the pile of memories.
They paced the 20-yard length of mementos that littered the ground next to the office of the Trinity Memorial Gardens and Mausoleum in Waldorf, trying to identify what, amid the mess, was theirs. There were American flags, flower vases, terra cotta statuettes, stuffed animals with matted fur, broken plaques, Christmas stockings, pinwheels, lanterns and framed pictures of the deceased.
"How are we going to find our flags? They're all broken," said Laurie Wood, 49, of Bryans Road as she sifted through the detritus last week. "They just took everything and threw it on the ground."
Wood and dozens of other relatives are angered by the recent enforcement of a cemetery policy to remove everything but flowers and vases from the granite headstones of their relatives. "This is our property. This is insane," said Karen Eckloff, 44, of Pinefield, whose son was 16 when he died in 2000 from a heart abnormality and is buried at the cemetery. "We come here to take care of our loved ones. This is all we have left."
"This is not junk, it's people's memories," said Cindy Wilmoth, 43, of Waldorf as she looked at the material that cemetery management had removed from grave sites about two months ago. "This is disgusting."
The policy has been in place since 1959, when the privately owned cemetery was founded, but was not actively enforced until late May, when the cemetery contracted mowing duties to an outside company and planned to double its size to about 40 acres, said Trinity manager David Mariner.
Mariner said families had fair warning about the change, including newspaper advertisements, notice in a cemetery newsletter and a sign posted on the grounds. The removal of mementos was done "purely for safety reasons," he said, because during the mowing season from April to November, the items could be chewed up and shot out by lawn mowers.
"Nationally, people have been hurt and killed by these projectiles," he said.
Mariner said that most families have supported the cleanup of mementos and that there's only "a very small group of vocal people, probably four or five families, who have their own ideas about how we should take care of the grounds."
But Barbara and Doug Graves of Accokeek have compiled a list of about 40 families who they say are angry about not being able to memorialize their relatives as they wish. Other family members also cite problems with vandalism, trash and broken bottles littering the grounds, and brusque treatment by cemetery management.
Frank Monopoli of White Plains said he is going to exhume his son Troy, who died in 1996, and move him to a cemetery near Annapolis.
"You go around there and you see darn plots that are sunk like a foot down in the ground. You'd break your neck if you tripped over it, and he's talking about safety?" said Monopoli, who visits the grave twice a day. "They can do what they want to do, but I'm getting out of there."
The Graveses have spent six years attending to the granite headstone of their 19-year-old son, Jason, who died in a car accident along Route 373 in Prince George's County in 1998.
On May 26, cemetery staff members removed several items that decorated the grave, they said, including a photo of their son, a cherub statue, miniature turtles and a lantern that lit the grave. Now Doug Graves, 51, a retired firefighter, drives to the cemetery every night after it closes to replace the mementos and light the candle. He returns between 4:30 and 5 a.m. to snuff the candle and remove their belongings.
In past years, Graves said, many of his cherub statues have been stolen from his son's resting place. He's filed a handful of police reports and even rigged the headstone with an alarm system and hid in the woods on weekends for six months trying to catch the thieves. Because of his recent problems, Graves has contacted the office of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and is planning to organize a town meeting to mobilize the critics of cemetery policy.
The cemetery management "always says a cemetery's not for the dead, it's for the living," he said. "But at this point it's a living hell."
Several other area cemeteries, including Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, have similar regulations that families cannot leave certain items next to the headstone during mowing season, Mariner said. The Charles Memorial Gardens in Leonardtown, however, allows families to put up memorial lanterns, small flower beds near the headstones or ceramic or porcelain portraits that can be attached to the monuments, said David Simmons, an employee at the cemetery.
"We do give a lot of freedom to our families here, and that's one thing people do like about this cemetery," he said.
Carolyn Jacobi, the founder of Eternal Justice Inc., a watchdog organization, said she plans to meet with families about the issues at Trinity Memorial Gardens. She said cemeteries have the authority to determine what items can decorate a grave site as long as "they are reasonable and providing they are consistent in their rule making."
"The fact that [families] wouldn't be allowed to put their son's picture on the site is horrible," she said.
On Monday, standing over her husband's grave, and a few feet from her nephew's burial site in a rear portion of the cemetery known as the Garden of Life, Amie Redner, 40, of Waldorf listed her complaints.
She held an empty Coors Light can she found on the grass, pointed to broken glass and a discarded flower pot under a nearby tree, and motioned to the patches of dirt and thin grass by the grave. She said she cuts the grass around the headstone herself and has fought with the management in search of better maintenance. The removal of a flag and a lantern from her husband's grave is just the latest battle for her.
"The lawn is so much nicer out front by the road. Back here, it's all weeds," she said. "It kind of feels like we've been forgotten."