In the friendly city of Fortuna, a dispute has been brewing between the city’s only mortuary, Goble’s, and the Fortuna Cemetery District over which of them is responsible for transporting the caskets to the gravesite for burial — something that the cemetery district insists is solely the responsibility of the mortuary or the family of the deceased.
Bryan Carnahan, owner of Goble’s Fortuna Mortuary, reached out to the Outpost last week to share an official letter he had received from the Fortuna Cemetery District, which formally stated that cemetery staff would not provide this service, and insisted that he no longer ask them. The letter, signed by Catherine Culver of the district board of trustees, states:
Recently it has come to my attention that Goble’s staff continues to request Fortuna Cemetery District employees serve as pallbearers at full body burials. The District has stated verbally to Goble’s Fortuna Mortuary that Fortuna Cemetery District employees are not to serve as pallbearers. Not only is it not the job of Cemetery District employees to serve in such capacity, but the District workers’ compensation policy does not anticipate or cover pallbearer-related injuries.
Please inform families that pallbearers must be provided by the family if Goble’s Fortuna Mortuary cannot provide an adequate number of pallbearers.
Fortuna Cemetery District employees have been instructed not to serve as pallbearers regardless of the circumstances.
Please inform your staff that they are not to ask Fortuna Cemetery District Employees to serve as pallbearers.
For those who are not super-familiar with what goes on behind the scenes of funeral arrangements, a little background is probably needed here. When a traditional cemetery burial is held for someone who passed on, the family generally chooses to hold the service in one of two ways: either they hold the service at a separate location — such as a church — after which the casket holding the deceased is transported to the cemetery plot for the burial, or they opt for a graveside service, in which case the casket is usually already placed on the gravesite when the party arrives.
When the service is held at a church or chapel, the casket is usually carried to and from the vehicle by pallbearers — often friends or family members who were selected to serve in the role. For graveside services, usually hired staff would be responsible for placing the casket, since it is already there when the family arrives. And this is where Carnahan and the cemetery district are not seeing eye to eye.
Carnahan — who has owned Goble’s for more than seven years and owns several other mortuaries throughout Northern California and Oregon — told the Outpost that moving the caskets onto the gravesite is and has always been, at the very least, a shared responsibility of the cemetery and mortuary staff.
As the funeral director, Carnahan is responsible for preparing the body and making all the arrangements for the burial, while the cemetery staff will dig the grave and prepare the site for the service by doing things like putting out chairs and covering the dirt. When Carnahan and other mortuary staff arrive at the cemetery with the deceased, usually the cemetery staff will either help mortuary staff move the casket or take over and move it themselves.
“I’ve been in the business 40 years and every other cemetery I’ve worked with does this,” he said, adding that even the Fortuna cemetery staff would usually provide this service, although sometimes reluctantly. So he was pretty surprised when he was told by the district that staff had been instructed to never move caskets.
Tony Eusted, grounds manager for the
Ferndale Fortuna Cemetery District, told the Outpost that the issue really comes down to a problem of staffing. The district only employs three staff members — Eusted, an assistant grounds manager and an office manager — who are responsible for running all seven cemeteries in the district.
With the staff stretched so thin, it’s difficult for them to always be available to transport the caskets. On top of that, Eusted said that he injured his back earlier this year and is not able to lift heavy things. That leaves only the assistant grounds manager to help move caskets.
All that being said, Eusted told the Outpost that, up until recently, he and the other staff would help move caskets “as a courtesy” if they were available to do so. But it was never something they were required or expected to do. With the bereaved paying the mortuary to arrange the funeral, Eusted feels that “it is the job of the funeral director to arrange for pallbearers and members of the clergy.”
Though Carnahan understands that the cemeteries operate with a skeleton crew, he says that he too has a small staff and is not always capable of providing all the people needed to move the caskets. The family is also not always capable of helping, especially when the bereaved are very elderly. Carnahan also said that he has had many issues with the Fortuna Cemetery District staff, saying that they don’t always complete other duties, such as placing chairs before the service or helping direct parking.
As a special district of Humboldt County, the Fortuna Cemetery District is largely funded by property taxes. The board of trustees is appointed by the Humboldt County Second District Supervisor and the board selects and oversees the performance of the employees. Carnahan says he has lodged complaints about the cemetery employees with both the board district’s trustees and the Board of Supervisors, but to no avail.
Catherine Culver of the
Ferndale Fortuna Cemetery District says she has certainly received many complaints from Carnahan, but that she has never heard these complaints echoed by the public and that she feels confident that Eusted and the other employees are doing their jobs. And when it comes to moving caskets to the gravesites, that is not in Eusted’s job description. A copy of the ground manager’s job description provided by Culver does not specifically include the job of moving caskets but does outline the more general duty to “coordinate with the office manager to schedule, prepare for and remain on site for burials.”
Culver added that moving caskets presents a liability issue and that, as she stated in the letter sent to Carnahan, the district’s worker’s compensation policy does not cover pallbearer-related injury.
“We’ve been told by the Public Cemetery Alliance attorney that they shouldn’t be [moving caskets],” Culver told the Outpost. “It’s a liability issue and a workers compensation issue.”
But why has this become an issue so recently, when Goble’s Fortuna Mortuary and the Fortuna Cemetery District have worked together for decades? Well, Culver admits that it just seems to be a communication issue between Eusted and Carnahan. Until Carnahan took over, Culver said, they had no problems with Goble’s.
“I’m not happy that we’re having this ongoing misunderstanding and difference of opinion,” Culver said. “We care for the public that we serve.”
Tom Howe — whose family owned Goble’s since the 1960s and who was owner himself from about 2004 to 2014 — agrees that the he and cemetery district had not had a disagreement over carrying the caskets, and that during his time as owner the cemetery staff was usually happy to help with the task.
Like Carnahan, Howe also said that placing the caskets on the gravesite is something that every other cemetery he’s worked with — both locally and out of the area — has provided. So Howe was also pretty taken aback when he read the letter Culver had written.
What does he think is behind the change? Well, kind of like Culver, he feels that it is simply a disagreement that has gotten out of hand.
“Ultimately, the bottom line is that Bryan and Tony don’t get along,” Howe told the Outpost. “It’s just carrying a casket 30 feet over to a grave. I can’t believe it’s gotten to this point.”