Earth Day 2019: where my local wildlife lives

A photo essay featuring North Carolina wildlife alongside their polluted habitats, in the hope it will inspire positive change.


Bolin Creek at Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, NC

A beaver lies bead among the trash in Bolin Creek where it intersects Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.  This is a disturbing image which i debated whether to publish.  Yet, it sums up, in one image, the cause of my concern…our actions are unintentionally contributing to the deaths of the wildlife which we say we love. I also have found a dead fox beside the water upstream.  In this one section of urban creek, I’ve documented: rabbits, raccoon, opossum, hawks, heron, owls, beaver, nutria, woodchucks, deer, and far too many birds and reptiles to list.   The biodiversity of this urban, wetland environment is simply stunning.

 


Jordan Lake, Apex, NC

Bells Chapel Public Access at Jordan Lake, NC.  A large amount of plastic trash can be found in the water itself.  Do Not Litter signs seem to do little to discourage people.
Osprey nest near same section of Jordan Lake as the above image. Both osprey and bald eagles eat fish from the lake and mammals living along the lake’s woodlands.  Both have been documented bringing trash items and contaminated prey to nests and young.

Haw River at Bynum, NC

A bald eagle catching fish from just under the dam at Bynum Bridge—the EXACT same location as photographed above.

Little Creek at Meadowmont, Chapel Hill, NC

All in one photograph:   Bird drinking water alongside chemical containing litter in Little Creek at Meadowmont, Chapel Hill.  Wood ducks rear young in the pond fed by this creek and there are documented hawk and barred owl nests as well, both species eat crayfish, fish and mammals from along this waterway, increasing the potential for contaminated prey to be brought back to young.

Bolin Creek at Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, NC

This is Bolin Creek at Franklin Street in Chapel Hill (right beside the Enterprise Rental Car store).  See all the trash which has washed down and collected? The creek is in the Jordan Lake watershed….the lake is a drinking water source and boasts active bald eagle populations.
I took this standing at the EXACT same spot on Bolin Creek at Franklin Street as the above image…a woodchuck (aka groundhog) lives in a burrow along the banks.  She raised a family there last year.

 


Bolin Creek Trail, Chapel Hill, NC

Litter clean-up extraordinaire Daniel Toben with a sample of chemical waste he pulled from Bolin Creek near Franklin St. He’s doing great work cleaning up our community.  Thanks Daniel!
Barred owl photographed from the Bolin Creek Trail …owls, heron & hawks all eat crayfish & fish from the creek and mammals from it’s woodlands.
Baby barred owl on its first day out of the nest last summer. It was the sole chick to successfully fledge.  I’ll keep the exact location of this nest private so as not to invite harassment of the current owlets.  Of concern is that owl parents unwittingly bring contaminated prey to feed owlets.
A red-shouldered hawk catching a crayfish in Bolin Creek near Elizabeth St.   Red-tailed, red-shouldered and Cooper’s Hawks all have nesting sights along Bolin Creek.  Again, a clean environment is important as contaminated prey can lead to both adult and baby bird death.

 

Outer Banks, NC

Not in the Triangle nor the best images due to distance and lighting, but I thought this was a dramatic illustration of how wildlife incorporated our waste into their lives.  This particular osprey nest had a surprising amount of construction plastic wrap, foam ‘swim noodle’ and general plastic built into the nest.

Osprey bringing trash to the nest. Nags Head, NC

Thank you for taking time to view.

To see more of my photographic work, please visit BethWaldron.com

 

Please don’t let the first image, be the last image for which our advanced civilization is remembered.  We can do better.  We must do better.

 

 

 

Wild Chapel Hill

There’s a side to the quiet Town of Chapel Hill most folks don’t know about….and it’s a wild one.

A barred owl fledgling rests on a log beside Bolin Creek, soon after leaving the nest for the first time.

Do you have to go ‘into the wild’ to see wildlife?  No! Even urban areas can have a surprising diversity of wildlife.  Case in point:  Chapel Hill, North Carolina is a university town of around 60,000 residents, making it the 15th largest community in the state.  It is one corner of the high-tech hub known as the Research Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill).

Don’t let the ‘town’ in the official name fool you, Chapel Hill is a fairly densely populated area, with a greater number of persons living per square mile (2,687) than large cities such as that of Atlanta, GA (630) or Nashville, TN (1,300).  Only 7 percent of land remains undeveloped.

deer3x5
Piebald white-tail deer seen on a town trail

I toss out these statistics to establish that Chapel Hill is truly an urban environment, with high population density and built-up environment.  Yet, it is home to a rich diversity of wildlife.

 

What’s around town?

I am a wildlife photographer living in Chapel Hill, so when I’m around town I usually have a camera with me.

Gray fox near Homestead Road

Over the past year, I’ve been documenting the wildlife I’ve encountered which I’d like to share because it is truly outstanding. Among the animals I’ve photographed:

  • Barred owl
  • Gray fox
  • Bald eagle
  • Raccoon
  • Opossum
  • Deer
  • Nutria
  • Beaver

    Nutria in Bolin Creek near Franklin Street
  • Woodchuck (groundhog)
  • Rabbit
  • Great blue heron
  • Three species of hawks
  • Monarch butterflies
  • And far too many birds, insects, and reptiles to list.

I set up some camera traps in my tiny backyard (I live on a quarter acre within in the city limits).  The animals which have been documented in my yard:  gray fox, raccoon, opossum, white-tailed deer, flying squirrel and a host of birds.   Some mornings, I hear the hoot of an owl and the call of a coyote.

Marsh rabbit from a town trail

Increasingly residents are living and working in close proximity to wild animals whose native habitats have been lost or fragmented by development.

owlWM
Barred owl at sunrise near Morgan Creek

I’ve lived either in or near Chapel Hill for around 30 years. The area has changed dramatically, with the region booming with new development.  Clear cutting is more commonplace than ever before.  Native wildlife habitats have been lost or fragmented.  Increasingly residents are living and working in close proximity to wild animals, who have adapted to city life and are attracted to man-made food sources.

Is living with wildlife safe?

When people and wildlife live in close proximity to each other, it can lead to conflict.  However, much of the issues are of our own making.  Leaving garbage or food out and getting too close to wildlife can lead to problem behaviors.

steeplevultures2 (1 of 1)
Black vultures atop Christ Church in Southern Village

Wildlife should not be feared, but we should have a respect that these are wild animals. I have encountered residents who, for example when I point out a barred owl roosting in a tree, are simply terrified.  They find it difficult to understand that unless they are the size and weight of a mouse, the owl has little interest in them!  Fear stems from a lack of knowledge and interaction with the natural world.

Barred owl near Franklin Street & Estes Drive.

Yet, I have also encountered residents (and photographers!) who don’t have enough fear and get entirely too close to a wild animal.  I have a long zoom lens so I can stay a good distance away from my subjects.  But many (far too many) times while I’m photographing a subject, a passerby will get way too close in an effort to snap a picture with their cell phone.  I’ve even seen naturalists with binoculars and photographers with zooms get too near an animal’s personal space proclaiming ‘oh, this one is used to people’.

Great Blue Heron at Finely Golf Course

Such harassing interactions always cause the animal to flee, creating a hazard for both the animal (who may be flushed from a safe spot into the open where it may face predators) and people—a frightened animal may perceive you as a threat and lash out towards you in self-defense.   Observe.  Appreciate.  Be respectful.  Don’t harass.

If you leave wildlife alone, they will leave you alone.  One exception…a sick or injured animal.

Baby raccoons on a backyard deck off Weaver Dairy Road

With most wild animals, if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone.  The exception being a sick or injured animal.  Rabies is an issue in the region; yet it seems far too many people mistakenly think ‘it must have rabies’ at the first sight of a fox, raccoon or bat.  Just because an animal can be a carrier of rabies does not mean every single animal is rabid.

Red-shouldered hawk at Bolin Creek

How do you know when an animal is sick?  A good rule of thumb:  wild animals should act wild, having a healthy fear of humans. As a wildlife photographer, I take great care to not be seen by my subjects because the moment I’m spotted, they will retreat. Even among urban animals who have been acclimated to people, they may tolerate your presence but they will never approach you.  If a wild animal chooses to approach you, that’s not normal behavior and a sign that you should keep your distance.

Where to see wildlife

  1. Look where you already go every day, close to home or work.  We are often so focused on where we are going that we don’t take time to truly look around us.  You might be surprised what’s in plain view!  I’ve seen owls at UNC, bald eagles over 15-501, fox off Weaver Dairy Road and a woodchuck raising a family in a burrow right under busy Franklin Street!

    woodchuck
    Who’s living a busy Franklin Street bridge?   A woodchuck, also known as a groundhog!
  2. Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County has many great public trails.  Many are paved and easily accessible, such as Bolin Creek trail, Morgan Creek trail, and the Riverwalk.
  3. UNC owed lands contain public trails from which wildlife can be found. Carolina North Forest and the NC Botanical Garden’s Battle Park and Mason Farm Biological Preserve are great places.

Want to see more?

Wildlife of North Carolina note cards

 

 

North Carolina bald eagles: a comeback success story

Photo by Beth Waldron, taken at Haw River, Bynum, NC 2017
Haw River, Beth Waldron, 2017

I recently went to the Haw River near Bynum, North Carolina to try out a new lens and unexpectedly encountered two bald eagles. Unexpected because not a single pair of bald eagles were nesting in North Carolina in 1983 when State biologists first released juveniles into the wild as part of a recovery effort. Now there is a thriving eagle population with an estimated 300 eagle territories statewide and 125 nesting pairs. The Haw River feeds into Jordan Lake, where around 20 eagle pairs nest and many more visit.

Decline and recovery

We know bald eagles were part of the historic environment in North Carolina because they were mentioned in a 1709 publication (A New Voyage to Carolina) by explorer John Lawson.  The Cherokee Indians also have stories passed down about golden and bald eagles.  So we know eagles were in the state, but why did they disappear?  The NC Wildlife Resources Commission cites several reasons for the eagle population’s decline:

  • Deforestation
  • Hunting
  • Poor water quality
  • Agricultural pesticides
Bald eagle catching a fish at Jordan Lake. Beth Waldron 2017

The most dramatic of these threats came in the 1960’s & 70’s when fish and other animals were exposed to pesticides such as DDT and PCBs which washed into streams and lakes. When the bald eagles ate fish and prey animals containing the chemicals, they too ingested the toxic substances.  Female eagles laid eggs with much softer shells which crushed under the weight of the nesting mother. In 1972, Congress passed a series of bills banning these chemicals and creating protections for eagles and other raptors.

The NC Bald Eagle Project was launched in 1982 to re-establish an eagle population in the state.  At first, eagles were raised in captivity and released into the wild around Lake Mattamuskeet in eastern NC. Many of young eagles died due to avian malaria carried by the local mosquitoes (which the young eagles had no natural immunity to).  Attempts at further reintroduction ended but in 1984, the first post-DDT wild bald eagle nest was documented just 7 miles from the lake.

State activities evolved to include the identification and monitoring of new nests and providing technical assistance to landowners and timber companies on how to help identified eagle populations by protecting nesting sites.

In 1990, wildlife habitat management practices were implemented at man-made reservoirs Jordan Lake and Falls Lake in central NC to provide roosting and nesting habitats for bald eagles.  Now there is a thriving eagle population at the lakes with around 20 nesting pairs at Jordan Lake in the area where the photographs posted here were taken.  Statewide there is an estimated 300 eagle territories  and 125 nesting pairs.  Isn’t this is a lovely chart showing how humans can have impact when we change practices to help save species decimated by our own actions?

Source: NC Wildlife Resources Commission, Bald Eagle Fact Sheet 2005

Track an eagle!

 

Today’s technology allows for even more advanced study and management of the NC eagle population.  NC State University professors Ted Simmons and Roland Kays lead a project using state-of-the-art GPS transmitters to study bald eagle movements in North Carolina.  In January 2015, an immature bald eagle who had been successfully treated by rehabilitation experts for an injury was able to be released back into the wild with a solar-powered GPS transmitter affixed.   Since her release, the eagle, named Yangchen, has made extensive use of reclaimed phosphate pits and catfish ponds near the Albermarle Sound. Recent maps of the bird’s movements are available to the public online and updated four times a day by the Movebank animal tracker site. The scientists are hoping to track the immature bird to follow migratory movements, pair formation, and nesting behavior over the next several years.

The bald eagle population has made a remarkable comeback in North Carolina.  It will take continued effort to ensure we never again are without them.

Haw River, Beth Waldron, 2017

Want to see more local eagle photos?

Visit:  https://bethwaldron.smugmug.com/Eagles/

 

 

 

 

 

A dose of nature

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.”
Anne Frank

When the world begins to feel scary (and lately, that seems far too often), I step away from the internet and the constant barrage of sensory overload to go for a walk.  I find peace in communion with nature. The trees are my cathedral, the birds my choir and the sunlight a reminder that there is always another daybreak after even the darkest of nights.

Don’t think you have to live in the country to find a quiet moment with nature.  I live within city limits and the following photos I took whilst on walks within a short distance of home in easily accessible public parks..just in the past week!

Serenity and wonder is all around….if you take time to look for it.  If you enjoy these, try visiting a new site I’m working on, Nature NC and share what you see on your walks.

Barred Owl at UNC’s Battle Park
Bald eagle catching a fish at Jordan Lake

Bolin Creek bath
Getting ready for cooler days ahead
Lovely song…wish you could hear.   (Get outside & you can!) 

EXCLUSIVE: Historic cemeteries became Wall Street traded commodities, now financial trouble looms

How do you turn a profit off a cemetery? That is the question now facing a financially troubled international firm owning what were once community-run cemeteries across the country.  The answer has far reaching implications for grieving families seeking comfort in the new ‘death care industry’ where there are few regulations.

StoneMor Partners L.P.,  a Trevose, Pennsylvania headquartered company, owns 322 cemeteries and 90 funeral homes in 27 states and Puerto Rico.  Its stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker $STON.

The company has struggled financially over the past 3 years.  In a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing dated July 28, 2017 the StoneMor Partners LLC admitted they have technically defaulted under the terms of their credit agreements–agreements which allow for creditors to call due $151 million in outstanding loans, immediately if they so choose.

StoneMor Partners stock history

While the company sought relief from its creditors,  industry analysts remained skeptical, saying the company is unlikely to meet it’s credit obligations because “the company has no history of generating cash flow and had only $15 million of cash the last time it filed audited financials, yet it has continued to pay dividends and even expanded its sales force.” Required financial reports are often filed past-due.

Why is cash flow difficult to obtain from a cemetery?  According to StoneMor’s 2019 First Quarter earnings report, revenue declines were driven primarily by “a decrease in interment revenues” and “lower sales of funeral related merchandise and services.”  Keep these revenue sources in mind for later–it becomes important in appreciating how StoneMor employees interact with grieving families.  

In February 2019, StoneMor announced “a bank waiver and amendment of certain loan covenants, as well at $35 million in financing from Axar Capital along with an agreement for Axar to buy up to 27.5% of the partnership units.”  In May 2019, the investment bank Houlihan Lokey was hired by StoneMor to help it refinance its credit lines of nearly $200 million. (Source)

The multi-year financial struggles come on the heels of a class action lawsuit filed in federal court in November 2016, in which investors accused the company of providing misleading and falsified earnings numbers designed to make the company appear profitable.  The complaint said StoneMor promoted the false figures while ramping-up dividend payments to investors each year, yet never actually generating sufficient cash flow to make these distributions. Instead of issuing cash distributions, the company simply kept issuing new securities and used those funds to pay off old investors in what has been called a ponzi-like scheme.

The class action complaint says StoneMor financial statements were “premised on a financial shell game that involved raising fresh capital from investors just in time to distribute a portion of it back to investors”

As a result, the company’s stock has taken a nose-dive, down 60% since August 2016, further increasing pressures for the company to demonstrate results.

What does this mean for StoneMor owned cemeteries and the grieving families which utilize their properties?  Already, the struggling company has been accused by customers at multiple cemeteries of property neglect and squeezing grieving families for cash by utilizing harsh sales-driven policies. (sources below)

My investigation has found a pattern of questionable business practices and low to non-existent regulatory oversight.

Here’s how it manifests for consumers:

Sales Representatives misrepresented as Counselors

StoneMor is currently recruiting 128 sales representatives nationwide, according to their corporate website. Below is the job advertisement as it appears on the StoneMor website,  each position is identical in wording with only the location and name of the cemetery changed. The positions are commission-based and promise high income.

Note the highlighted language:

job recruitment(source: https://careers-stonemor.icims.com/jobs/3812/sales-representative/job

However, the persons hired into these sales positions provide grieving families conducting business at the cemeteries with business cards identifying their position as that of a “Family Service Counselor“.

Business card from StoneMor employee

No mention of their role in sales is provided to consumers nor are families told they are working on a commission basis.  No counseling services are provided.  A search for ‘family service counselor’ on the StoneMor ‘careers’ website returns zero results and redirects to the ‘sales representative’ positions.

How do the Family Service Counselors/Sales Representatives from 20 different StoneMor owned cemeteries describe their work–is it counseling or is it sales?

In their own words:

“You’re not a counselor, this is a sales role in the death care industry.”

“you don’t get paid unless you make a sale

“You are made to lie, and cheat customers and in their own words “prey on the emotions” when someone just died.  Create the urgency!! is the motto.”

“the atmosphere was predatory

“Unstable, hostile, and aggressive work environment. High employee turn over rate. Huge financial issues, thousands of dollars and months of overdue payments to their vendors”

“Forget the legal aspects of customer service, forget actually caring for families who have lost loved ones and are grieving, they need stuff and you had better sell it to them.”

“concern is only for “the sale” and how to manipulate any and all into a purchase

“They want you to bring up past death experiences with families to make them feel guilty about not pre-planning for their families. It’s all about the money.

“The company is less about the families we are servicing and more about meeting numbers.”

“business model is based on outdated vacuum sales tactics that are to be expected on a car lot and not in a cemetery.”

“Tells you to put family first but only cares about profit unless there is the chance of lawsuit!”

“Commission only!…The “leads” were going through family members of people buried in the cemetery”

“Money hungry! And will say and do whatever necessary to get it out of families!”

Unethical means of generating leads.”

“Vultures….Let us circle the dead and pick the families wallets clean..If you do not do this you are not considered worth their time.”

“location manager don’t care about families, all they want is the sales… even if the families are having money problems.

“They mark the memorials up 350%. You heard that right. Ripping people off at a time of desperate need.

“The operating Officials should spend a day in an office. They should also experience a death. This industry has to change. I feel very sad for the communities that have to deal with the steady rule changes and never having a steady friendly face.”

“Issues needing to be resolved are put on the back burner as selling pre-need is “more important” – according to management.”

“If you’re gullible, you may even trick yourself into thinking you are helping people”

“I have heard more complaints from families than praise

“they are drowning in debt. 3-4 mths behind in payments to vendor”

-former full-time StoneMor Family Service Counselors  Source: Glassdoor, Inc. and Indeed, job recruitment company reviews

What happens at the community level when distant profit motives intersect with grieving families & low regulatory oversight?     A case study

When you have a financially troubled distant corporation striving to meet shareholder expectations and commission-earning staff incentivized to sell products, the outcome for families utilizing a cemetery is almost inevitable. To better illustrate the local impact, here’s how this corporate profit squeeze has played out in one North Carolina cemetery:

Wayne Memorial Park, Dudley NC

Wayne Memorial Park is a 40-acre perpetual care cemetery located in Dudley, North Carolina–a rural farming community in Wayne County where the average income is $34,598. The property is an ideal spot to watch military jets fly low overhead as it lies directly at the end of a runway for Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in nearby Goldsboro, NC.  Due to the proximity to a large military base, the cemetery is a popular final resting place for Veterans and their families as well as the community’s predominantly farming and blue-collar residents.

Founded in 1948, the cemetery underwent many changes in ownership over the years, but it was not until 1996 that non-local management took control of the property when Wayne Memorial Park, Inc merged with Townson-Rose Funeral Home and Forsyth Memorial Park and became SCI North Carolina Funeral Services.

In 2007, StoneMor Partners L.Pobtained a license from the NC Secretary of State to begin doing business in North Carolina.  Two years earlier, local tax records show Wayne Memorial Park was one of their acquisitions, purchased in 2005 for $1,013,500 under the entity StoneMor  North Carolina LLC whose state filings show no principal office in the state but rather list StoneMor’s Pennsylvania officers and address.

During StoneMor’s tenure as owner of Wayne Memorial Park, notable changes have occurred:

  • High property staff turnover.  A 17 year employee and former manager confirmed the 2017 revenue quota for the Dudley cemetery is $1.7 million, with each month having a specific income target….a target difficult for local staff to meet in a small community cemetery. As a result of demotions and penalties for failure to meet monthly sales quotes, there were three managers of the cemetery in 2017 alone.
  • The overall appearance of the property declined dramatically as reinvestment in upkeep diminished. The grass covering the graves slowly turned to weeds and bare ground appeared.
    • This is what Wayne Memorial Park looked like in July 2012 
    • This is what Wayne Memorial Park looked like in July 2017 taken by the same sidewalk. A May 2019 photo of same area, different angle from the farther sidewalk showing continued decline. Little grass left, nearly all weeds and bare soil. 
    • This is what the ‘Garden of the Good Shepard’  looked like in June 2010
    • This is what the ‘Garden of the Good Shepard’ looked like in June 2017, same place.
    • Garden of the Good Shepard, May 2019 (above statue is visible to the upper left of frame)
  • Temporary grave markers–historically provided free by funeral homes as part of their comprehensive services–were banned to encourage the purchase of ‘keepsake’ temporary markers–available only from 1 supplier (the cemetery) and at 1 price pointSole source in the funeral industry is a practice not permitted under regulations, yet there is little oversight which will be detailed later in this article.
    • The perpetual care cemetery currently neither places nor allows placement of temporary markers on the day of burial to designate where human remains are interred.  The temporary markers, designed of a laminated paper material to last only until a permanent bronze and granite marker can be in place, were traditionally placed after the grave was covered at the conclusion of burial by local funeral homes as part of their services.
    • A grave with a temporary ‘keepsake marker’ installed. (look for the black rectangle just in front of the yellow flowers)

      Families who wish to avoid an unmarked grave must purchase the ‘keepsake marker’ as the only alternative.  The ‘keepsake marker’ is a small stone plaque measuring 10 inches by 6 inches etched with the decedent’s name & year of their birth & death (not full date) and no other personal information. It is available for purchase only from the cemetery at a cost of $176.14. Since it takes approximately 2 weeks to be installed, in the time between the burial & placement of the temporary keepsake marker there is nothing marking a  grave.

    • The sales pitch on the temporary ‘keepsake marker’ is that this cost will be deducted from the permanent granite and bronze marker if it is purchased from the cemetery rather than from an outside vendor. The permanent granite marker is not currently required to be purchased from the cemetery, a consumer protection under NC law.  The starting costs are $4,550 for what was described to me by the sales representative as a ‘basic’ marker going up to $8,000+ range–significantly higher than prices charged by outside vendors I surveyed.
    • If a family chooses not to purchase the permanent marker from the cemetery, then they are out the $176.14 temporary ‘keepsake marker’ fee plus the cemetery will then charge an additional  ~$200 ‘installation fee’ for the permanent marker, even though they are not actually installing the marker (the outside marker vendor does that).  It is unclear why an install fee is charged if the marker is not purchased from the cemetery and no install work is therefore done by them. I say the cost is ‘around $200’ because I was unable to get an exact fee from the Family Service Counselor/Sale Representative I met with, who said a printed price list was not available due to the ‘variable nature of their products’.
    • I asked what happens to people who do not purchase the temporary ‘keepsake marker’—how do they locate their loved one’s grave in the future once the grass grows and it isn’t possible to tell a fresh grave had been dug.  I was told ‘the family just has to know’ but that they could also pay the cemetery a ‘location fee’ to survey the lot again.  The cemetery keeps paper records of where burials occur, but does not physically/visually mark specific grave locations.
    • Because some families can neither afford the ‘keepsake’ nor immediately outlay the $4,000-$8,000 for permanent marker (recall this is a community where the average income is $35K), many graves now go unmarked for extended periods of time, sometimes indefinitely.  Consequently, exactly where bodies are interred has been questioned. Reports have emerged of  family members with valid deeds attempting to bury a loved on what they thought was ‘their family plot’, only to discover someone else was already buried in the same location….the same plot had been sold twice.
    • Why this matters:   One unmarked grave’s evolution…..
A fresh grave of a presumed Veteran…but who? No name marks the grave.
5 months later:  Note the change in texture/color to the right of the existing marker…graves, but whose?

8 months later: The sod has died and the grave has now caved in.  Still no marker indicates who is buried here or that a burial is even at this location.
  • Grave tents are banned out of liability concerns.
    • Customary practice among the area funeral homes I surveyed is to leave the funeral tent up for approximately 5 days to both mark and protect the fresh grave from the elements. Additionally, it serves to shield the flowers from the wilting sun. However,  Wayne Memorial Park now bans this practice. I have confirmed reports that tents are erected the day of the funeral and before the last of the mourners leave a service, cemetery staff begin taking down the tent and closing the grave.
    • I was told by the Family Services Counselor/Sales Representative that tent use after a service’s conclusion is banned out of ‘liability concerns‘.  Yet oddly, tents are permitted to be in place during the service when the greatest number of people are around it.  I was unable to obtain a reason for the disconnect except that it was ‘corporate policy’ of which I was unable to obtain a written copy of the corporate policy.
  • Flowers placed by mourners are aggressively removed and the company’s own silk flower arrangements pitched to families as tasteful alternatives.
    • If you’ve never had to purchase funeral flowers…they can be expensive, with a single casket spray running $300-800 and individual wreaths from $150-300, among florists I surveyed.  In one confirmed instance at Wayne Memorial Park from May 2017, fresh flowers valued over $1,500 were removed from a grave less than 48 hours after burial.  With no temporary marker allowed and the flowers removed, there was nothing indicating a body had been interred at that location.
  • The scheduling of burial services in the cemetery is more tightly controlled under StoneMor, with hard limits on the number of services occurring on the property per day and their times with no graves permitted to be opened on weekends or holidays.  A Monday burial is possible only if the management receives notification in writing by 1pm on Friday.
    • In one confirmed case, a death occurred on a Friday afternoon at 3pm and the family preferred to schedule the funeral for the following Monday or Tuesday. However, the cemetery said that if they weren’t notified by 1pm on Friday, they could not ‘open a grave’ on Monday. The family was then unable to bury their loved one on Tuesday because the cemetery also limits the number of services which can take place each day and they were ‘already booked’ for Tuesday with other persons ‘backed up’ who died after the 1pm Friday notification deadline.  So that left Wednesday as the family’s only alternative.  The day/time of the funeral was entirely driven by when corporate policy said it could be done and not when the funeral home, minister, musician, florists were available or when the family wanted.  The family of the deceased had to meet the cemetery’s needs, not the other way around.
  • Consumers and deed holders are unable to obtain a written copy of the current cemetery policies and prices upon request.
    • I asked via written email, phone call and in-person visit for a copy of the cemetery’s current policies and prices.  After 5 days of inquiry, I finally received a 47-page document detailing the cemetery’s policies. However, it was dated 2002five years before the company was licensed to do business in NC and when the cemetery was under different ownership.  The 2002 document has no mention of current polices pertaining to temporary markers,  ‘keepsake makers’, tents or funeral flower removal.  I have been unable to get such current policies or pricing in writing.  State statues indicate consumers must be able to easily obtain a copy of prices and policies upon request.
  • Families are pressured to return after burial for additional sales opportunities. Consumers receive multiple phone calls following burial from the Family Services Counselor/Sales Representative asking for an in-person “after-care appointment“.
    •  No counseling or support services are provided and no additional business conducted.  A ‘counselor’ confirmed to me  this meeting serves as an opportunity for the cemetery to market their permanent markers, silk flower arrangements and pre-planning services.
    • I have also confirmed cases of long-time plot deed holders being contacted by phone and told they need to come in to ‘confirm their deed‘.  At such confirmation appointments, pre-planning services and products are pitched.

What is the law governing cemeteries?

Current rules and regulations were passed during a time when cemeteries were locally-owned enterprises and not owned by New York Stock Exchange trading level international conglomerates–regulation has not kept up with changes in the industry.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates funeral homes to protect consumers, but not cemeteries except in limited situations.  The Funeral Rule, enforced by FTC, makes it possible for families to choose only those goods and services needed and to pay only for those selected, whether making arrangements when a death occurs or in advance. The Rule allows for easy price comparison among funeral homes, and makes it possible to better select the funeral arrangements wanted.  However, the Funeral Rule does NOT apply to third-party sellers, such as casket and monument dealers, or to cemeteries that lack an on-site funeral home.  In recent years, the FTC has expressed a desire to extend the Rule to cemeteries, but so far this has not happened and it is unclear the current administration’s view expanding federal authority.

At the state level, cemeteries operate under a myriad of rules.  In North Carolina, perpetual care cemeteries, including those owned by StoneMor, are overseen by the NC Cemetery Commission, created under the main legislation governing cemeteries, The NC Cemetery Act aka Article 9, Chapter 65The 9 member Cemetery Commission is appointed by the Governor and the General Assembly; 7 of the members represent the cemetery industry and hold financial interests in cemetery and funeral related businesses, 2 appointees represent the public.

There are no ‘consumer guides’ published by the Commission to put the law in simple terms for consumers.  The statues themselves are not an easy read.  In the NC Cemetery Act, there are named provisions that a cemetery cannot force a family to purchase vaults and caskets from the cemetery, but there is nothing specific to temporary markers or other products which may be deemed as ‘required’ under individual cemetery policy.  The intent of the NC Cemetery Act appears clear–the General Assembly was trying to prevent families from being preyed upon during times of grief–however, the Act was written in an era before for-profit corporations began purchasing nonprofit and community cemeteries.  All forms of current burial practices, which many run counter to custom and tradition, were not foreseen and therefore are unaddressed.

From ancient times, a defining moment of civilization was when humans began to honor the dead. Marking graves is simply what generations have intuitively done as the first act of grief to demonstrate dignity and respect for the deceased.

Not isolated problems

My research finds that the issues detailed above are not limited to Wayne Memorial Park nor North Carolina, but rather are being reported at multiple StoneMor properties. From news reports, the consensus appears that consumers have little recourse under current (or non-existent in some states) regulations. Scenarios are arising which are not addressed under current consumer protection laws.

“We had a horrific burial, it was unbelievable,” Smelcer said. “Yes, I just want to get my husband out of here. But I pray that everybody else’s issues here get solved because this cemetery is just nothing but a joke.”  Avon, Ohio

From newspaper and TV accounts:

  • Pinelawn Memorial Park in Kinston, NC:  families report tall grass, fire ants, and weeds covering graves.  Reported by the Kinston Free Press 7/14/2017
  • Anniston, Alabama:   No grass, soil erosion, trucks driving over graves, downed limbs.  Families call the condition of their loved one’s grave ‘heartbreaking’.  ABC news 33 8-8-2017
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:   “allegations of high pressure sales tactics”, “In two dozen interviews with families and funeral directors, similar themes emerged: Complaints that StoneMor had harassed and misled mourners and customers, upsetting or bewildering some when they may be most fragile.”  Philadelphia Inquirer 10/26/2015 
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:   Family “pushed to buy” additional plots following death of son, rules prohibiting chosen monument. “It’s all about money to them,” say the parents “Losing Matthew broke our hearts,” he says. “Dealing with All Saints (cemetery) broke them all over again.” Philadelphia Inquirer 2-12-2017
  • Delaware:  lack of price lists, pressure to pre-arrange services, handing out sales material to people leaving burial services.  “In a 48-hour period, we had six clients calling about being harassed on the telephone by StoneMor sales people,”  Delaware County Daily Times 
  • West Virginia:  “Families outraged over condition of burial plots”  reports of ‘rude employees’, flooding, broken stones, disrepair, history of complaints regarding condition of cemetery,  Register-Herald 5-31-2016
  • Allentown, Pennsylvania:   Graves sold twice.  Only discovered when marker stone was to be installed. ” The plots that we had purchased were previously sold to another couple” The Morning Call 10-6-2016
  • Annville, Pennsylvania:  “Complaints pile up against cemetery” reports of disrepair, lack of upkeep ABC TV 27 June 8, 2016
  • Avon, Ohio:  May 18, 2019 ABC Cleveland News Cemetery  issues trigger more complaints, community meeting “We had a horrific burial, it was unbelievable,” Smelcer said. “Yes, I just want to get my husband out of here. But I pray that everybody else’s issues here get solved because this cemetery is just nothing but a joke.”

And there are many more.

Needed actions

I don’t like to present a problem without offering a possible solution.  With that in mind:

  • In North Carolina, the General Assembly needs to:
    • Revise statue to clearly include consumer protections for all customary burial products and services such as temporary markers, tents, flowers.
    • Sole-source purchase ban should be expanded to cover all cemetery goods and services, not only caskets and vaults as current law dictates.
    • Price lists and policies should be written, clear, current and available upon request.
    • Minimum property upkeep standards for perpetual care cemeteries should be defined.
    • Closer monitoring and enforcement of existing regulations is also needed.
    • The regulatory body should be diversified to include more non-industry representatives.
    • Consumer education guides should be created to spell out clearly the rights of families.
    • An easier complaint process should be implemented with independent investigation and the ability to provide anonymous tips.  Currently complaints received by the NC Cemetery Commission are forwarded to the cemetery in question for comment and resolution.  I was unable with repeated attempts to get anyone to answer the phone at the number provided for the NC Cemetery Commission..number goes straight to voicemail..so anonymous tips from consumers or employees of unethical or illegal practices is not possible.
  • At the national level, the Federal Trade Commission needs to expand the Funeral Rule to include cemeteries. Currently they only regulate cemeteries who also own a funeral home on the cemetery property.  There needs to be greater consumer protections via regulation of the cemetery industry, similar to that which already exists in the funeral home industry.
  • Importantly, consumers need to be aware that their local cemetery may be a for-profit corporation.  I suspect few people realize that cemeteries are now stock market traded corporations and the person counseling them on burial arrangements earns a commission-only income. While every business must make a profit, the death industry is unique because it catches consumers at a vulnerable time immediately following the death of a loved one. Protections are needed to ensure ethical conduct.  Greater transparency is needed so consumers can be fully aware.

Disclosure

I was compelled to research StoneMor because my family is buried in Wayne Memorial Park and one day, I may be as well.  My grandparent’s and extended family’s graves are there and most recently, my father was buried there.  My parents pre-planned their burial, purchasing plots in 1990 at a time before the cemetery was owned by StoneMor.   When Dad died, we did not know the cemetery had changed hands, yet the difference in the experience was striking.  Red flags of things which ‘didn’t seem quite right’ I encountered during our burial experience prompted me to research the company. I therefore make no claim of un-bias, rather I have tried here to present what I found as factually as possible. I encourage news outlets to conduct their own independent research to verify and expand upon what I have presented. I am happy to share sources and collaborate with verified members of the news media.

 

 

My Dad’s Grave, May 2019.  He–and all who are buried here–deserve a more dignified and respectful burial.


 

Carolina Trashed: emergence of don’t give a damn naturalists

The modern marker of disenfranchisement has become…littering by nature lovers?

Jordan Lake Reservoir, Bell’s Church Public Fishing Area

I take wildlife photos, so I do quite a bit of hiking around local rivers and lakes.  I’ve always packed a trash bag in my photo bag to wrap gear in case of rain.  At some point, I found myself starting to use the bag to pick up litter along the way.  Nothing spoils a great shot of a natural vista or potentially harms the wildlife living there more than garbage.

Time was, I gathered a half-bag of trash on my photo walks.  Then, a full bag.  Now, I pack two bags–the most weight I can carry with my gear–and fill both to overflowing, leaving behind many, MANY, bags worth more of trash.  I don’t have hard data to show that littering has become worse, just personal observation that at least in my neck of the woods, littering is habitual.

The photos posted here are what I found on just one day visiting 4 locations in the Haw River and Jordan Lake area of North Carolina.  Notable is that this particular watershed (which supplies drinking water to ~300,000 people) is located in the heart of what is known as the Research Triangle–dubbed so for it’s high-tech companies and higher-education research universities.

It is an affluent area–with a median income 25% higher than the rest of North Carolina and a significantly higher percentage of persons with advance education. (Census data source) The quality of life gained from our many natural resources and outdoor recreation opportunities figures prominently in the economic development recruitment pitches for the Triangle region, which leads among the mid-Atlantic states in population growth.  It is also an area with strong environment awareness markers–there’s a robust local market for hybrid vehicles, organic food, farm-to-table, and the state is home to a nearly 100 environmental groups

Why are the demographics relevant?
A computer hard drive, Cell phone, Battery…all oddities found at the bottom of the Haw River dam

Let’s consider why someone would litter a natural area. These litterers are obviously people who appreciate the recreational benefits of nature enough that they chose to go out into it to enjoy what it has to offer…fishing, hiking, swimming, boating, etc.  So if you like being in nature, why then trash it?  People don’t go to sit by a lake to view the garbage…if you trash it, it destroys the very thing you went there to enjoy…so why do it?

Researchers of litter (yes there is such a thing) postulate that people litter because they feel disenfranchised and powerless.  In other words, they don’t feel connected to society or  the land, and hence why it is considered acceptable behavior to trash the landscape.  Yet, does the high-income, high-education Triangle fit that resident profile?  No really.  So what else could be going on.

Jordan Lake area near both Adopt a Shoreline & No littering signS
Sense of personal responsibility lacking?
Haw River where I found worms still alive in a plastic bag.

Another theory of why people litter is that they lack a sense of personal responsibility. These folks litter because they believe others will pick up after them.    That theory might have some traction if you couple it with a dose of down-right laziness.  Think of it:  Do we have a population of people motivated  and intelligent enough to plan an outing, go buy beverages, drive to a lovely natural setting to enjoy what the outdoors offers, yet also lazy and stupid enough to then throw the empty containers on the ground rather than make the effort to take it with them?  If so, that’s pretty darn lazy as it takes less physical effort to take an empty bottle out of the woods than it does to acquire and bring the full bottle into the woods to begin with.

Failure of anti-litter messages?

“Ugliness is so grim. A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony, which will lessen tensions.” Lady Bird Johnson

Where do people learn that when you are done with something, you simply throw it down?  Well, it wasn’t because we don’t hear the ‘littering is bad’ public messages.

1964, Keep America Beautiful

While there had been anti-litter campaigns before, it was in the 1960’s that Lady Bird Johnson made anti-littering mainstream by making highway beautification her cause as First Lady.  The ‘don’t be a litterbug’ message took off, sparking a societal stigmatization of littering.  Take a look at the ads from that time and you’ll notice peer pressure and shame were key motivators to not litter.   Children were even encouraged to call down their parents when they saw them litter!

The ‘Keep America Beautiful’ campaign was born out of this new mindset. Who can forget in the 1970’s their iconic public service announcement featuring Iron Eyes Cody, with a single tear falling down his cheek at the sight of litter.  We’ve had generations now growing up exposed to not only the anti-littering message but also the environmental movements educational emphasize on the importance of clean air and water along with preserving wildlife habitat.

Yet the educational plea hasn’t worked and neither has the threat of legal action.  In the places, I go ‘litter is against the law’ signs are everywhere, so when someone litters, they clearly know that it is against the law.  Legal action isn’t a deterrent because state and local municipalities impose fines for littering when a law enforcement officer spots a litterer in action…and therein is the rub, it must be witnessed which is very hard to do as most of these areas are, understandably, not patrolled. In the bigger picture, littering isn’t considered a serious offence especially when there is violent crime to target with limited funding and staff.

So really, people litter because they can.  Even when told it’s illegal and it’s bad for the environment, people still do it.

Just shut up & pick it up?
piles of trash are within view of the UNC ALPHA PHI OMEGA  ‘Adopt a shoreline’ sign

Because the prevention and enforcement sides are lacking, volunteers try to meet the need by picking up litter.  Nonprofit organized Adopt-a-highway and Adopt-a-stream/shoreline programs exist.  Yet the volume of trash is so high, not even these noble efforts can keep pace.   In the Triangle area, formal lake and river clean-ups are typically organized 2-3 times per year, depending on the program, location and sponsor.  A shocking amount of trash is collected during these organized clean-ups.

Unfortunately, the accumulation of trash is continual and happens on far more miles of waterways than these events can possibly cover.  The Clean Jordan Lake nonprofit over the past 8 years has organized removal of over 128 tons of trash along 15 miles of shore…that’s nearly 13,000 bags worth of trash!!  The lake boast 180 miles of shoreline…so simple math shows 1) the potential volume of uncollected trash which may be out there along the waterways and 2) how being able to pick it all up is logistically and economically impractical.  Keep in mind, this data is just from one of the regions many lakes and rivers.

What to do?
Bucket of dead fish: caught & neither released nor eaten but left with the rest of the trash

While I don’t have a magic answer, I also don’t like to present a problem without offering possible solutions. Volunteers can’t possibility pick up all the trash…there must also be deterrence to prevent the litter in the first place.  It’s not realistic to expect increased funding for anti-litter efforts.  And, it’s not realistic to change the mindset of a ‘don’t give a damn’ litterer overnight.  The quickest short term fix is to bring back the shame associated with littering to get people to modify their behavior.

Here’s my brainstorm idea:  While there the many miles of lake shores and rivers banks can’t all be monitored, there are certain ‘hot spots’ of dense litter activity centered near recreation areas.  Mount some trail cameras in these areas and post the photos of litterers on the internet.  Invite the public to tag people they recognize.  In our social media image conscious society, the negative peer-pressure of public shaming is greater punishment than the threat of a $250 fine IF a law enforcement officer actually sees you in the act.  A basic wildlife camera, like the ones used by hunters, costs less than $100 each…as good of an investment for volunteers, donors and nonprofits as the cost of buying trash bags and ‘adopt’ signs.

Additionally, I highly encourage all visitors to our parks, lakes and rivers to bring a trash bag…for your own garbage but also, be kind and pick up what you see around you too.


What ideas do you have?  Why do you think that here in the Research Triangle, a community in which we are supposed to be well-educated and know better than to litter, it’s still done to such a degree?  Is there so little pride in our home area that we don’t think twice about trashing it?  Surely in a region like ours, we can do better…we at least should try.  Let’s discuss below.


We’re not the only ones depending on these waterways: I took this photo of a fishing bald eagle from the same spot where I took photos of computer electronics, beer cans/bottles, fast food containers, dirty diapers, discarded fishing lines & hooks, a grill, two shoes (not matching), a cell phone and oh yes…a scratch-off lottery ticket.

 

*EXCLUSIVE* How YOU can be buried in an unmarked grave despite best planning practices

SERVED IN National Guard

How one man was buried in an unmarked grave despite preplanning his burial in 1990 and having a $20,000 funeral.  How this surprising indignity can occur–to ANY of us–is rooted in the growing national trend of out-of-state publicly-traded for-profit holding companies buying historically non-profit community cemeteries. Regulations, meant to protect consumers during their most vulnerable time after the death of a loved one,  have not kept up with the rapid changes of the death-care industry.


Are you “financially ambitious” with a “competitive spirit” and want “unlimited earning potential”?  

A  job working with grieving families is for you! 

Wayne Memorial Park is a perpetual care cemetery located in the rural farming community of Dudley, North Carolina. The property is an ideal spot to watch military jets fly low overhead as the property lies directly at the end of the runway for Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, NC.  Due to the proximity to a large military base, the cemetery is a popular final resting place for Veterans and their families as well as the community’s predominant farming and blue-collar residents.

May 11, 2017 dated job recruitment for “sales representative” position at Wayne Memorial Park reflects an aggressive profit emphasis. Employees hired into “sales representative” positions provide consumers with business cards indicating their position is as a “Family Service Counselor” No mention of sales.  Click to enlarge (source: https://careers-stonemor.icims.com/jobs/3812/sales-representative/job )

Founded in 1948, the cemetery underwent many changes in ownership over the years, but it was not until 1996 that non-local management took control of the property when Wayne Memorial Park, Inc merged with Townson-Rose Funeral Home and Forsyth Memorial Park and became SCI North Carolina Funeral Services.

In 2007, StoneMor Partners L.P., a publicly traded company founded in 2004 and headquartered in Trevose, Pennsylvania, obtained a license from the NC Secretary of State to begin doing business in North Carolina.  Two years earlier, local tax records show Wayne Memorial Park was one of their acquisitions, purchased in 2005 for $1,013,500 under the entity StoneMor  North Carolina LLC whose state filings show no principal office in the state with StoneMor’s Pennsylvania officers and address.

StoneMor Partners L.P. has grown quickly by acquiring properties—today they own 316 cemeteries and 105 funeral homes in 28 states and Puerto Rico. The company’s stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker id STON.   Securities and Exchange Commission filings  (FORM 10-K/A) for the last fiscal year available online, 2015, show $319 million in annual revenue, $202 million of which was earned in the sale of cemetery merchandise and services.

Nineteen of StoneMor’s cemeteries are located in North Carolina including the large historic Montlawn Memorial Park in Raleigh, purchased in 2014 for $8 million. NC properties include:

  • Alamance Memorial Park, Burlington, NC
  • Carolina Biblical Gardens of Guilford, Jamestown, NC
  • Chatham Memorial Park, Siler City, NC
  • Crestview Memorial Park, Rural Hall, NC
  • Floral Garden Park Cemetery, High Point, NC
  • Lakeview Memorial Park, Greensboro, NC
  • Martin Memorial Gardens, Williamston, NC
  • Montlawn Memorial Park, Raleigh, NC
  • Mountlawn Memorial Park, North Wilkesboro, NC
  • Oakhill Memorial Park, Kinston, NC
  • Oaklawn Memorial Gardens, Winston-Salem, NC
  • Pinelawn Memorial Park, Kinston, NC
  • Randolph Memorial Park, Asheboro, NC
  • Rowan Memorial Park, Salisbury, NC
  • Skyline Memory Garden, Mount Airy, NC
  • Wayne Memorial Park, Dudley, NC
  • West Lawn Memorial Park, China Grove, NC
  • Woodlawn Memorial Park, Durham, NC
  • York Memorial Park, Charlotte, NC

Managing visitor’s grief experience

Wayne Memorial Park, Dudley NC

Wayne Memorial Park in Dudley, NC contains 40 acres of grounds with graves going back to 1948. After StoneMor’s purchase in 2005 for $1,013,500, small changes began to be noticed by visitors to the cemetery.

  • Temporary grave markers are banned. The perpetual care cemetery neither places nor allows placement of temporary markers on the day of burial to designate where human remains are interred. The markers, designed of a material to last only 60-90 days until a permanent marker could be in place, were traditionally placed after the grave was covered at the conclusion of burial by local funeral homes as part of their funeral services.  This practice is no longer permitted. A ‘keepsake marker’  is now pitched to families as an alternative to an unmarked grave; it can only be purchased from 1 source–the cemetery–at 1 price point and takes 2 weeks to install. Because some families cannot afford a permanent marker nor choose not to purchase the ‘keepsake’, many graves now go unmarked forever.
  • Tents over graves, which had previously been kept up for 5 days, are removed even before the last mourner leaves the graveside service. Tent use after a service’s conclusion were banned out of ‘liability concerns’.
  • Flowers placed by mourners are aggressively removed and the company’s own silk flower arrangements pitched to families as more tasteful alternatives.
  • The scheduling of burial services in the cemetery are more tightly controlled, with hard limits on the number of services occurring on the property per day and their times with no graves permitted to be opened on weekends or holidays. A Monday burial is possible only if the management receives notification in writing by 1pm on Friday.
  • The overall appearance of the property has diminished:  The grass covering the graves slowly turned to weeds and bare ground appeared.
  • Consumers and deed holders are not able to obtain a written copy of the current cemetery policies and prices upon request.

Family Service Counselors or Sales Representatives?

Most disturbing of the changes were in the interactions between grieving consumers and cemetery staff, now motivated by commission-only income and sales quotas. (see job ad). Although the company, for all it’s cemeteries nationwide, posts job recruitment ads for “sales representative”,  the persons employed in these sales positions provide families with business cards identifying their position as “Family Service Counselor”. No mention of their role in sales is provided to consumers nor are families told they are not salaried employees and earn commission-only.  A search for ‘family service counselor’ on the StoneMor ‘careers’ website returns no results and redirects to the ‘sales representative’ positions, of which there are currently 93 vacancies nationwide.

What do full-time Family Service Counselors from 20 different StoneMor owned cemeteries say about their work? In their own words:

“You’re not a counselor, this is a sales role in the death care industry.”

“You are made to lie, and cheat customers and in their own words “prey on the emotions” when someone just died.  Create the urgency!! is the motto.”

“Forget the legal aspects of customer service, forget actually caring for families who have lost loved ones and are grieving, they need stuff and you had better sell it to them.”

“They want you to bring up past death experiences with families to make them feel guilty about not pre-planning for their families. It’s all about the money.”

“The company is less about the families we are servicing and more about meeting numbers.”

“Tells you to put family first but only cares about profit unless there is the chance of lawsuit!”

“concern is only for “the sale” and how to manipulate any and all into a purchase”

“you don’t get paid unless you make a sale”

“Commission only!…The “leads” were going through family members of people buried in the cemetery”

“Money hungry! And will say and do whatever necessary to get it out of families!”

“Unethical means of generating leads.”

“the atmosphere was predatory”

“Vultures….Let us circle the dead and pick the families wallets clean..If you do not do this you are not considered worth their time.”

“location manager don’t care about families, all they want is the sales… even if the families are having money problems.”

“They mark the memorials up 350%. You heard that right. Ripping people off at a time of desperate need.”

“The operating Officials should spend a day in an office. They should also experience a death. This industry has to change. I feel very sad for the communities that have to deal with the steady rule changes and never having a steady friendly face.”

“Issues needing to be resolved are put on the back burner as selling pre-need is “more important” – according to management.”

“business model is based on outdated vacuum sales tactics that are to be expected on a car lot and not in a cemetery.”

“If you’re gullible, you may even trick yourself into thinking you are helping people”

“I have heard more complaints from families than praise”

-former full-time StoneMor Family Service Counselors  Source: Glassdoor, Inc. job recruitment company reviews Source link

A family’s experience:  death is only the beginning

My Dad passed away suddenly on May 12, 2017.   While he had fought lung cancer for 2 ½ years, he did not die following a long-goodbye from the cancer itself.  He unexpectedly developed a pulmonary hemorrhage (bleeding in the lung).  It was sudden. It was traumatic. Just moments before his passing, Dad was well enough that doctors were planning a transfer for later in the day out of UNC Hospital’s ICU to a ‘step-down’ room with preparations already underway for eventual discharge home.  So as a family, we were totally unprepared to say goodbye when he passed away unexpectedly in ICU at 3pm on a Friday afternoon.

When a loved one dies, there is little time to grieve before having to jump into making funeral arrangement decisions.  We fortunately contacted a wonderful funeral director who provided truly outstanding care to my family during this difficult time. The funeral home was professional, compassionate and flawless in the services they provided.

I understand that the funeral business is indeed a business—every business must make a profit. Dad was a businessman too, so he would have understood that also. The compassionate manner in which the funeral home conducted necessary business was in such a way that it did not feel like ‘just business’—we were never pressured and the pricing of products and services were fully transparent in writing, with multiple options and price-points to choose from. My mother and I were empowered by the funeral home to be in control of all decisions. It is the way a business  which touches consumers at the saddest and weakest moment of their lives should operate.

To make things easiest on us so we’d only need to write one check afterwards, we asked the funeral home to pay all outside vendors on our behalf and we’d reimburse—such as the cemetery’s fees for digging the grave, newspaper ad costs for the obituary, Register of Deeds fee for obtaining certified copies of the death certificate, etc. No fees were added on to provide this convenience for us.  When we left the funeral home meeting after making Dad’s arrangements, we anticipated no additional monies to be paid.

Burial plot:  Where raw grief met corporate greed

Mom and Dad were married 55 years

Since Dad died on a Friday afternoon, my mother and I had originally hoped for a Monday or Tuesday funeral at the latest, but it became clear this would not be possible.  While we met with the funeral director on Saturday less than 24 hours after Dad died, the cemetery was unavailable to meet with us until Monday at 11 AM.

My parents paid $2,070 in April 1990 for 6 connecting burial plots in Wayne Memorial Park.  The deed was issued at a time before StoneMor Partners L.P. owned the cemetery, when the cemetery was owned by Wayne Memorial Park, Inc.  At the time of Dad’s passing, we were unaware the cemetery had changed ownership.

Flags mark the burial plot at the pre-burial meeting.

Our ‘pre-burial meeting’ was with StoneMor’s Family Services Counselor. The purpose of the meeting, we thought, was to go out to the gravesite and indicate which of the 6 plots my family owns we wished to use for Dad’s interment. It was at this meeting, my mother and I learned that this perpetual care cemetery neither places nor allows placement of temporary markers on the day of burial to designate where human remains are interred.

We were shocked. The very idea of Dad being in an unmarked grave broke my heart in that moment. My mother was equally emotional.  We knew we would eventually be purchasing a permanent granite and bronze marker for the grave—a double one large enough to cover both my mother & father’s plots.  But such markers take 6-8 weeks to be made and installed from the time of order; and it is typically not an immediate decision at the time of a loved one’s death as families like to put some thought into the memorial and with costs ranging from $4,000-$8,000, it is an expense which must be budgeted.

My Dad and I…the thought of his life being reduced to an unmarked grave broke my heart and in that moment I felt we had no choice but to pay whatever it took to prevent him from being forgotten so quickly.

But there was an interim alternative the cemetery offered.  In the same meeting after my mom and I learned that Dad would be buried without any identification, we were given a sales pitch to purchase a ‘keepsake marker’ to be ordered and installed in an estimated 1-2 weeks after burial. The ‘keepsake marker’ is a small stone plaque measuring 10 inches by 6 inches with the decedent’s name & year of their birth & death (not full date) and no other personal information. It was available for purchase from the cemetery and to comply with their policy it could ONLY be purchased from the cemetery,  at a cost of $176.14. Since it takes approximately 2 weeks to be installed, in the time between the burial & placement of the temporary keepsake marker there is nothing marking the grave.  We were presented with 1 choice for a temporary marker…no other price points, styles or options to mark the grave until the permanent granite/bronze marker was installed months later.

The pitch on the temporary ‘keepsake marker’ was that this cost would be deducted from the permanent marker if it was purchased from them. The expensive permanent granite marker is not currently required to be purchased from the cemetery.  Their starting costs are $4550 for what was described to us by the representative as a ‘basic’ marker going up to $8000+ range.   If we choose not to purchase the permanent marker from them, then we are out the $176.14 plus they will then charge ~$200 ‘installation fee’ of the permanent marker, even though they do not actually install the marker themselves (our outside marker vendor would do that); the fee is merely to review the drawing, permit & manage the process. I say the cost is ‘around $200’ because I was unable to get an exact fee from the Family Service Counselor, who said a printed price list was not available due to the ‘variable nature of their products’.

Keepsake marker…the only temporary marker permitted, only available for purchase from the cemetery and not able to be installed at time of burial

I asked what happens to people who do not purchase the temporary ‘keepsake marker’—how do they locate their loved one’s grave in the future once the grass grows and it isn’t possible to tell a fresh grave had been dug.  I was told ‘the family just has to know’ but that they could also pay the cemetery a ‘location fee’ to survey the lot again.  They keep paper records of where burials occur, but do not physically/visually mark the location in any way.

On that day of the pre-burial meeting, still raw with grief my mother and I felt we had no choice but to purchase this temporary ‘keepsake marker’ because we couldn’t stand the thought of nothing at all marking Dad’s grave, even if only for a few weeks or months.  Cost was not the issue, respect was.

From ancient times, a defining moment of civilization was when humans began to honor the dead. Marking graves is simply what generations have intuitively done as the first act of grief to demonstrate dignity and respect for the deceased.

Scheduling

My son and my Dad. My son is a pilot…it was one of the proudest, happiest day’s of my Dad’s life when his grandson took him flying.

We were limited by the cemetery on when we could bury Dad.  He died on a Friday afternoon at 3pm at UNC Hospitals, located 2 hours away.  The family preferred to schedule the funeral for the following Monday or Tuesday, but the cemetery said that if they weren’t notified by 1pm on Friday, they could not ‘open a grave’ on Monday.  When I expressed our desire to not delay the burial, the Family Service Counselor twice indicated that we should have notified them before 1pm on Friday per policy if that was truly what we wanted and I kept replying…’but he didn’t die until 3pm!’

So due to their notification policy, we were unable to bury Dad on Monday. We were then unable to bury him on Tuesday because they limit the number of services which can take place each day and they were ‘already booked’ for Tuesday.  So that left Wednesday as the only alternative.  The day/time of Dad’s funeral was entirely driven by when the cemetery said it could be done and not when the funeral home, minister, musician, florists were available or when the family wanted.  The family of the deceased had to meet the cemetery’s needs, not the other way around.

Burial day

Dad working in his garden. He loved yellow flowers.

My Dad was buried on Wednesday, May 17.  My mother and I planned for Dad a lovely graveside service.  He loved flowers–yellow was his favorite color so we ordered a casket spray filled with beautiful yellow flowers.  Dad knew many people having been in the refrigeration and electrical business for over 40 years and was active in a large antique tractor club.  Many of his long-time customers and tractor-club friends also sent arrangements.  Over $1,500 in fresh flowers from the family alone covered his grave.

One of the 3 arrangements my mother and I ordered.

A tent over the grave was erected the day of the funeral—it was the first 90-degree day of the year and the shade protected not only the mourners but also the flowers.  The funeral home’s practice is to leave the tent up for 5 days to both mark and protect the fresh grave and it serves to shield the flowers from the wilting sun. However, the cemetery bans this practice. Before the last of the mourners left the service, cemetery staff began taking down the tent and closing the grave.

I was told the restriction was for liability reasons, in case someone got hurt.  Yet I couldn’t square this logic since the tent was in place during the service when the greatest number of people were around it. Over 200 people signed the register at Dad’s funeral with most standing around the tent for the burial and with 30 family members seated in chairs directly under the tent.  The time of greatest liability was during the service, not in the days afterward when there would be only the occasional family visitor to the grave.

A clean, unmarked grave

When my family returned 2 hours after the conclusion of the funeral, following interment, the tent was gone and there was nothing marking the grave except the mound of beautiful flowers.

Family at the grave hours after burial. The flowers were gone and the grave raked clean when visited 36 hours later.

The ‘keepsake marker’ would not be installed for 1-2 weeks we were told.  It felt wrong there was nothing with Dad’s name, but at least the flowers were there to indicate where his grave was.

Yet, that also was not to be for long.   When family visited the cemetery on Friday late morning, less than 48 hours after burial, all flowers had been removed.  The grave had been raked clean.  No flowers.  No marker.  No name.  Nothing at all to indicate whose grave it was or that a burial had taken place.  It broke our hearts yet again.  We were unable to take any clippings from the flowers or ribbons to preserve as mementos.  All that money, all that love invested in choosing the perfect way to honor my dad…gone in less than 48 hours after the service.  What a waste.  And for what reason I cannot imagine to know.   The flowers would not have died that quickly.

Some of the flower arrangements later placed on the grave

Unknown to me at the time, one of my Dad’s sisters was so moved that she called the cemetery to complain when she saw the unmarked grave. She spoke with a manager who confirmed the removal of the tent was policy and indicated she would speak with ‘higher-ups’ about changing the timing of flower removals.

On the Tuesday following burial, my Dad’s temporary ‘keepsake marker’ was installed.  It was chipped during installation, but I did not mention it because I did not dare risk removal.  So my Dad’s grave now at least has a name, albeit the feeling I’m left with is hollow.  He deserved so much more respect in death than he was shown…any one does.  He was a husband, father, grandfather, and brother….he was loved.  And it is the people who loved him who visit the cemetery.  It is the people who loved him on both sides of my family tree who also have grave plots purchased in this same cemetery…it has over the years become the final resting spot for all the people I hold near and dear.  But it can now never feel the same and there is no reason for this change of heart other than simple corporate greed.

What are the rules and regulations governing the for-profit cemetery industry?  Read on.

The grave with the $176.14 temporary ‘keepsake marker’ installed. I placed the silk flowers behind it.

Written policies and prices lacking

At our ‘pre-burial meeting’ and in subsequent emails, I asked for written cemetery policies and price lists.  I was told I could get a copy of the policies at our ‘after-care appointment’.   The purpose of such a meeting was puzzling to my family since after burial, there should be no further need for the consumer to sit down and meet with a cemetery representative.  Consumers are pressured to return for an in-person ‘after care’ appointment which can have no role after burial except to serve as an opportunity to market their permanent markers, which currently can be purchased from any vendor, not just the cemetery.

Indeed at my family’s after-care meeting, we were pitched markers starting with a ‘basic model’ at $4,550 going up to $8,000 for more elaborate markers which we were told were of better quality and durability.

I was provided—6 days after the burial and 11 after he died and we began making arrangements–a 47-page document detailing the cemetery’s policies. However, it was dated 2002five years before the company was licensed to do business in NC and when the cemetery was under different ownership.  The 2002 document has no mention of current polices pertaining to temporary markers,  ‘keepsake makers’, tents or funeral flower removal.  I have been unable to get such current policies or pricing in writing.  I have begun to suspect such written policies do not exist—if so, then as a consumer, I have not been able to obtain a copy easily and upon request, as (my understanding) state statues require.

Laws and regulations

What does the law require of perpetual care cemeteries?   Current rules and regulations were drafted during a time prior to the for-profit corporate transition of the cemetery industry and therefore do not fully address today’s practices.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates funeral homes to protect consumers.  The Funeral Rule, enforced by FTC, makes it possible for families to choose only those goods and services needed and to pay only for those selected, whether making arrangements when a death occurs or in advance. The Rule allows for easy price comparison among funeral homes, and makes it possible to better select the funeral arrangements wanted.  However, the Funeral Rule does NOT apply to third-party sellers, such as casket and monument dealers, or to cemeteries that lack an on-site funeral home.  In recent years, the FTC has expressed a desire to extend the Rule to cemeteries, but so far this has not happened and it is unclear the current administration’s view expanding federal authority.

At the state level, cemeteries operate under a myriad of rules.  In North Carolina, perpetual care cemeteries, including Wayne Memorial Park, are overseen by the NC Cemetery Commission, created under the main legislation governing cemeteries, The NC Cemetery Act aka Article 9, Chapter 65The 9 member Cemetery Commission is appointed by the Governor and the General Assembly; 7 of the members represent the cemetery industry and hold financial interests in cemetery and funeral related businesses, 2 appointees represent the public.

In the Act, there are provisions that a cemetery cannot force a family to purchase vaults and caskets from the cemetery, but there is nothing about temporary markers. (At least none which I could find in the regulations, but keep in mind I am not a lawyer and there are no ‘consumer guides’ published by the Commission to interpret the law in simple terms for consumers) The omission of temporary markers may be an oversight as it seems with the Act, the General Assembly was trying to prevent families from being preyed upon during times of grief with the casket, vault and permanent marker provisions, and if this is the case, it should also be extended to temporary markers.  The statutes were likely written in an era before for-profit corporations began purchasing nonprofit and community cemeteries.  Plus, I suspect it was understood to be simple common sense that it was desirable to mark a grave temporarily.

Needed changes to cemetery industry regulations

Since my Dad’s funeral, people in the community have shared stories with me of graves being sold twice and family members going to bury a loved one only to find the plot long held already occupied.  As I have no first-hand experience with this, I cannot comment on its accuracy, although I have 100% faith in the integrity of the people who shared those stories.  What I can comment on is my first-hand experience, as detailed above.  That alone should be cause for alarm.

My grandparents are buried near my Dad…many relatives on both sides of my family tree have burial plots in the 69 year old cemetery.

To be clear:  While my mother and I were obviously disturbed when we encountered the cemetery’s practices, we at no time acted irate, irrational or even raised our voices.  Rather, we cried.  The days after my Dad’s unexpected death were ones of overwhelming sadness and this experience added to that feeling of being overwhelmed by events beyond our control.  Our interactions with cemetery staff have all been respectful and professional as we’ve expressed our concerns and unhappiness…this is in part, because that’s the sort of professional minded business people we are, and in part, because we do fear being banned by the cemetery from visiting our family’s graves. I don’t know if they have the power to do this, but I suspect this fear is what keeps many in the community from speaking out.  In addition to my Dad, my grandparents are also buried there and aunts and uncles on both sides of my family  have plots there—this cemetery years ago became our family’s choice of a final resting spot.   I try to always be polite to people and separate the policy from the person…I appreciate that perhaps the staff at the cemetery are simply doing their jobs enforcing corporate policy passed down from elsewhere.  I have no way to know who, or where, policy decisions are made.  I just know they are bad ones.  With that in mind….

As a consumer, my concerns are:

  • That human remains are not marked.  This is standard practice at this cemetery.  Temporary markers are banned and if a family does not choose to purchase the one-option ‘keepsake marker’ or a permanent granite marker, the grave will forever go unmarked.  This goes against the very philosophy behind a perpetual care cemetery and against the societal custom of marking a grave out of respect for the deceased as as part of the grieving process for the family.  I can’t imagine persons who purchase plots years in advance would assume they would be in an unmarked grave…even if only for a few days.  They likely assumed this was part of the price they paid or if not, that such a basic thing certainly wouldn’t be banned.  Respect and comfort to the family requires at least a name on a grave.  Many plots are also current and retired Veteran’s burials due to the proximity to a major Air Force base.
  • The temporary ‘keepsake marker’ could only be purchased from the cemetery and there was only one option and price point.
  • That this came up only immediately after a death during a time of great emotional upheaval for the family who thought all had been arranged with no decisions to make or money to pay. Deed holders should be kept apprised of changes in policies, changes in ownership and given opportunity for public comment.
  • That consumers and deed holders are not able to easily obtain a written copy of the cemetery policies and prices—I asked for copies multiple times, in writing also, in advance of the burial. I was only able to obtain an outdated copy from a time before the company even owned the cemetery and then that was provided 11 days after the death.
  • Whose policies govern whether graves must be marked & limit temporary markers to a sole source? In our meetings, the representative for the cemetery kept referring to the need to adhere to ‘the policies’ and I cannot get clarified WHOSE policies so I know who to appeal or complain to—is this state law, Cemetery Commission, FTC, corporate rules etc.  I was told I could complain about the policies in an after-care survey…which when I received it, the return address for the survey goes to the cemetery office in Dudley to the very people whose work I have concerns about, so I’m confident that survey will never be passed higher up the chain of corporate leaders.  I don’t know what recourse I as a consumer have to question or help change the practices.
    • The State of NC statues need to be revised to clearly include temporary markers in the code.
    • The Federal Trade Commission needs to expand the Funeral Rule to include cemeteries. Currently they only regulate cemeteries who also own a funeral home on the cemetery property.
    • There needs to be greater consumer protections via regulation of the cemetery industry, similar to that which already exists in the funeral home industry.

A plea for common sense decency

My Dad and I on my wedding day

I am unclear if the practices and policies of this particular cemetery and its corporate parent are legal or not…I do hope someone more legally savvy than myself will know.   If the practice and policy I’ve described are indeed legal, then it certainly isn’t ethical.

This is a farming, blue-collar community with many military and retired military residents.  Many citizens are on fixed incomes.  Hitting up grieving widows, widowers and families at the time of bereavement for an overpriced temporary marker which can only be purchased from a single source or else the loved one’s grave will go un-marked is wrong. Quickly removing the tent and the flowers placed by mourners on the grave is wrong. The intent behind a family choosing a perpetual care cemetery is that they want a grave to be properly recorded and cared for long into the future. They desire it to look nice and honor the memory of their loved one.  That today there can exist unmarked graves in our state’s perpetual care cemeteries is an abomination and an affront to the hardworking consumers who chose this product as their final resting place.

While bringing to light what happened to my family will not change the hurt inflicted upon us, it is my hope it may prevent it from continuing to happen in the future.   I call upon the NC General Assembly, the NC Cemetery Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to more closely regulate perpetual care cemeteries and protect consumers. I stand ready to testify what I have detailed above to be true.  This I do to honor my Dad. 

Knowledge empowers.  Action transforms.  
Bad things continue to happen when good people do nothing.  
Examples of unmarked graves:
Veteran’s grave…but who? No identifying information.
Note the change in texture/color to the right of the existing marker…graves, but whose?  As time goes by and a fresh burial is no longer obvious, a used grave plot is unrecognizable

UPDATES

7/27/2017   Report in the Kinston Free Press of similar issues at another NC StoneMore cemetery  http://www.kinston.com/news/20170714/no-title

 

 

 

 

Where are the female opinion writers?

While I’m no stranger to opinion writing, I’m very lonely–especially in my home state of North Carolina.

I like to read opinion columnists.  I find that by reading a diversity of viewpoints, it helps refine my own.  After all, if you are only exposed to people who think like you, you’ll never get a full picture of the issues.  Diverse voices leads to more robust outcomes.

That is why I’m so disturbed by what I see in the opinion pages of traditional media–or rather what I don’t see:  Female opinion writers.

I first noticed a dearth of female perspectives on the pages of my local daily paper which boasts the second largest circulation in North Carolina, the Raleigh-based News & Observer. For those of you not in North Carolina a little demography:  the area’s rapidly increasing population reflects that Raleigh is the state capital and the center of NC political power (the NC General Assembly & government agencies), the hub of high-tech business (the Research Triangle Park), a lure for acclaimed medical care (Duke, UNC) and with a core of higher education and research institutes (Duke, UNC, NCSU, NCCU).  In other words, it’s a pretty active geographic spot.

Yet, despite our progressiveness, the main newspaper for the region has no female opinion columnists as well as no female community columnists (who also provide opinionated, non-oped page commentary).  It prompted me to wonder if this was an isolated occurrence of this one paper and region.  Sadly no.  I did a survey of the websites of 7 major circulation North Carolina newspapers to see how many female writers were listed as opinion columnists on their website.  The results shocked me:

North Carolina Women Total % Women
Charlotte Observer 0 4 0%
News & Observer (Raleigh) 0 3 0%
News & Record (Greensboro)* 0 7 0%
Winston-Salem Journal 0 2 0%
Fayetteville Observer 0 7 0%
Star-News (Wilmington) 0 3 0%
Herald Sun (Durham)** 1 8 13%
Total NC 1 30 3%
  • Method: Persons identified as opinion columnists of that publication on opinion section of website accessed 1/27/15
  • * = no clear listing of regular columnists on the website; listing of columnists for the most recent Sunday print edition (1/25/15) used
  • ** = Amy Laura Hall, an Associate Professor of Divinity at Duke University, is identified as “Guest columnist” 

Amy Laura Hall, the one woman I found listed on the newspaper websites as an opinion columnist, publishes about once per month in the Durham Herald-Sun and holds a non-newspaper full time position (Associate Professor at Duke). While it was nice to find at least one NC woman publicly acknowledged by a newspaper as an opinion columnist, consider for perspective that the Herald-Sun has a circulation of just over 50K while the state’s largest two daily newspapers have significantly higher readership.  The Charlotte Observer circulation hovers ~180K while the News & Observer is not far behind at ~175K.

I wondered how North Carolina papers compared to the national opinion sources in inclusiveness.  Here’s what I found:

Women Total % Women
New York Times 2 11 18%
Washington Post 8 32 25%
Los Angeles Times 2 6 33%
Wall Street Journal 3 8 38%
Creators Syndicate 20 77 26%
Universal Press 7 14 50%
Total National 42 148 28%

I keep hearing ‘the liberal media’ bemoaned as if it were universal truth, but these stats don’t reflect bastions of liberalism.

My survey is informal and likely wouldn’t pass academic muster, but the results are fully consistent with the formal studies which have been done, showing anywhere between 5% and 30% female representation among opinion writers depending on the papers surveyed. (Ref 1)

CharlotteOb
Charlotte Observer, largest daily newspaper circulation in NC. What’s missing?

If women are half the population nationally (51% in NC), then why are more of our opinions not found in these public forums? Men dominate Congress (80%) and the NC General Assembly (78%).  If we’re also absent from the major media outlets, then exactly when and where are our perspectives being heard?   If we’re not a consistent and robust part of public debate, then there is little potential to influence policy.  We remain invisible citizens–affected greatly by policy, yet not contributing in meaningful visible ways to the public debate.

If the appeal to simple social equity doesn’t move you, then consider economics.  In central North Carolina where I live (dubbed The Triangle), there are over 800,000 women and we make a pretty darn good demographic for any business interest: 42% have at least a bachelor’s degree and 64% are employed—49% of those in professional positions, which is a higher proportion than Triangle men. (Ref 2)  It’s no secret that papers rely on advertising more than circulation to keep the newsroom going and they should heed the fact that women make or influence 85 percent of all purchasing decisions, and purchase over 50 percent of traditional male products, including cars, home improvement services and technology products—all attractive advertising segments. (Ref 3)  Any business which ignores half the potential audience demographic (and the very segment advertisers want to target) does so at risk of their own economic demise.

I won’t get into the roots of why there are so few women holding positions as opinion columnists.  I’ll leave that to the academicians (Google it and you’ll find multiple theories). Regardless of how we got here, what I want to know is this: What can we do to get women on the opinion pages now?  What is the action plan?

The News & Observer (Raleigh), NC's second largest circulation. What's missing?
The News & Observer (Raleigh), NC’s second largest daily newspaper circulation. What’s missing?

I suggest that first, women have to keep submitting their work to editors.  It’s hard to keep at it when you’re met most often with rejection–I share this feeling. It’s easy to find yourself asking  ‘what’s the point’ when you put your best forward and repeatedly hit the wall. I’ve had some success publishing one-off opeds (USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, among others). I take this as evidence that I just might be articulate enough to string reasoned analysis and thoughts together sufficiently to be publishable. Yet, that holy grail of a steady writing gig has alluded me (and from the statistics, I’d say most other women too).

Still, despite the propensity for rejection, we must continue to write and to submit. We must make ourselves known in numbers–and if we don’t find success as columnists via traditional media, then there is always the blogosphere. Build your brand online.  Perhaps some view it as not as prestigious (or as effective), but it is better than remaining silent. When you have knowledge and a message for action burning inside you, to remain silent is painful.  We have always had to work a little harder than our male counterparts for the same recognition and compensation; the opinion barrier is yet another classic example of that necessity. Get creative to find a workaround to the challenges. And on the darkest feeling days, take heart that if papers who are already struggling continue to ignore half their readership and advertising demographic, they’ll soon be out of business anyways.

Secondly, newspaper editors (and owners) need to make an effort to diversity their opinion columnists. Cultivate a welcoming environment for female writers. Don’t tell us (as one editor recently told me) that you’d love to add a female columnist, but there is no money for it. This falls flat when we see men being hired into those roles–so money surely must exist somewhere. Don’t try to ‘do us a favor’ by accepting our work only as ‘unpaid’ (non-staff) occasional contributors when you are willing to pay male writers to contribute regularly to your publication as promoted staff columnists.

And here is a key point: don’t expect us to give you more of the same substance you already have. Just like the men among your staff columnists, we have unique life experiences which flavor our viewpoints and our writing styles. Don’t be tempted to edit us down into submission of your status-quo expectations. Don’t pigeon us into writing only about classic ‘women topics’.  Loosen up the stylebook on what an opinion piece must look like and see what emerges. Keep in mind,  all female writers do not share the same voice–men don’t either. Some of us are liberal and some conservative. We too have unique racial, ethic and economic experiences layered on top of gender. So don’t think if you hire one woman as a columnist, that covers you for representing the entire female perspective. It’s simply not that homogeneous and what you’ve got is one woman’s perspective. Right now, since nearly all female voices are missing from opinion pages in North Carolina, then I suppose having at least one would be considered an improvement.  We can chat about diversifying female voices once you have embraced at least one.

Part of me can’t believe I’m writing about this subject in 2015.  I’ve run into some fairly absurd glass ceilings in my life, but I truly thought the days of women being treated as if they should be ‘seen but not heard’ were in the past. Think of it….what message does it send to people, especially our young people, when only one gender speaks up on issues which affect us all? Are we not reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes?  Is it really that women are good enough to write for the Home & Lifestyle pages, but not for the Opinion pages?  Come now, we can do better.

It comes down to this:  if women are not presented publicly as having valid, reasoned, and intelligent opinions, there will be no further progress towards the societal shift on gender issues which is a fundamental underpinning before real equality occurs.  It’s time for ‘the liberal media’ to act a little more like the reputation.

 

REFERENCES

1. Where Are the Women? The Presence of Female Columnists in U.S. Opinion Pages Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly June 2014 vol. 91 no. 2 289-307 and  The OpEd Project 2012 report

2. Statistics for the Triangle Metropolitan Statistical area, Institute for Women’s Policy Research  http://www.iwpr.org/publications/pubs/the-status-of-women-in-the-triangle-metropolitan-area-north-carolina/at_download/file

3. Marketing to women: 30 stats to know, Marketing Daily, http://www.mediapost.com/publications/article/170413/marketing-to-women-30-stats-to-know.html