Lawsuit: Gravestones lost, damaged due to disrepair at San Fernando Mission Cemetery

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MISSION HILLS >> A month ago, William and Jodi Howard drove from their homes in south Orange County to San Fernando Mission Cemetery to visit the graves of their relatives.

Only they couldn’t find many of their loved ones because the stones at the 200-year-old Mission Hills graveyard were either choked with weeds, broken, or gone, according to civil lawsuit.

“Things (were) overgrown with weeds; the grave markers weren’t visible,” said their attorney, Jeffrey Spencer, of San Clemente, of the northeast San Fernando Valley cemetery. “It’s basically in a state of disrepair.

“They were shocked, upset the graves weren’t maintained. They still haven’t found some of them.”

The Orange County residents sued the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles last week, saying its Mission Hills cemetery had failed to apply a maintenance fund into fixing up a cemetery that has fallen into disrepair.

The class-action lawsuit, filed March 21 in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges breach of contract, negligence and fraud by concealment.

It said the Catholic cemetery founded in 1800 near Mission San Fernando Rey de España and now home to such Valley stars as comedian Bob Hope, singer Ritchie Valens and actor Chuck Connors, has sunk into a state of disrepair and neglect.

It said the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which owns and operates the 86-acre San Fernando Mission cemetery at 11160 Stranwood Ave., has failed to employ a cemetery maintenance fund to guarantee the care of gravesites.

The fund is supposed to be paid for out of 15 percent of the money paid for each burial, according to the lawsuit.

“The gravesites of the decedents … are overgrown, covered in weeds, grave markers have been covered over, lost, damaged or removed,” the complaint said.

An attendant at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery business office Tuesday referred questions to an archdiocese spokeswoman. The archdiocese said it learned of the lawsuit through media reports and had not been served.

It said that its cemeteries were part of the ministry of the church, and were therefore not required under state law to create a financial reserve for an endowment care fund, but that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles voluntarily maintains an equivalent fund “to ensure the perpetual care and maintenance of the final resting places of our Catholic faithful.”

“We are not aware of any of the damage alleged in the litigation,” said Adrian M. Alarcon, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, in a statement. “We want to assure our patrons that our cemeteries are committed to the steadfast care of the resting places of their loved ones.


“If there is a concern regarding the care of a grave at any of our cemeteries, patrons are asked to please contact the cemetery manager.”

The Howards’ lawsuit seeks damages for emotional distress and the formation of a “constructive trust” that would restore the dilapidated graveyard.

William Howard’s parents and brother are buried there. His daughter-in-law Jodi’s sister and maternal grandparents lie there as well.

“What we would like is to have the cemetery and graves restored the way that it should be,” Spencer said, “and that the cemetery maintenance fund be replenished.

“There’s a special duty one should have concerning the care of decedents.”

As families gathered for graveside services Tuesday amid a steady breeze that shook the boughs of pine, oak and other trees that shade centuries of graves, many flat stones were not visible to passersby.

Along a 75 stretch of road through the memorial park, a dozen grave markers were partially covered or completely obliterated by grass or dirt. They included “Beloved V.W. (last name not visible), 1901 – 19–.”

And not far from a Shrine of the Holy Family, which featured a roughly 15-foot white marble Mary, Joseph and young boy Jesus, were two adjacent markers of U.S. veterans who had fought in World War II.

But atop their final resting places, only the first names of “Albert” and “Albert” peered through the spread of weeds and dirt.

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