Stockton resident Patty Wheeler’s brother, who passed away in 1985, is buried in the Tooele City Cemetery. The year after he died, her father walked the canyons of Tooele County for over eight hours searching for a perfectly-shaped tree to plant at his son’s grave. He finally dug up a pinyon pine, transplanted it at the gravesite, and visited the site daily for several months to nurture the tree. It struggled for the first couple of years, so one day, Wheeler’s father told his son that he had done everything he could for the tree and that it was now his — if he wanted it, he had better take care of it. Within the next year, the tree began to thrive, Wheeler said.
That’s why when Wheeler went back to visit her brother’s grave last month, she was shocked.
“When we drove up and into the cemetery, we sat there in the car for several minutes just trying to get our bearings,” said Wheeler. “Everything looked different. Only one-third of the tree was left. It had been butchered. All the branches from the bottom up to about two-thirds of the tree had been cut off.”
Wheeler said she’s noticed several other trees in the cemetery were trimmed in the same fashion.
“They look like something from a Dr. Seuss movie,” she said. “They look like someone tried to make them look like palm trees of some sort.”
Ben Campbell, a certified arborist and owner of tree and bush-trimming company Precise Yard in Lake Point, saw pictures of two of the trimmed trees — a blue spruce and Alberta spruce. He said spruce trees are able to bounce back after several years and produce new limbs. Pine trees, on the other hand, are not able to reproduce limbs once they’ve been cut off.
“What was done to the trees is extremely stressful because the foliage is the tree’s food source,” Campbell said. “They’re going to struggle with that much pruning done to them at one time. It’ll be years before they actually come back. Health wise, this trimming was a little detrimental and stressful, but the trees do have a chance of survival.”
Tooele City Parks and Recreation director Kathy Bell said the reason the trees have been removed or trimmed is due to the city’s new sexton, Bob Hansen. He started working at the cemetery temporarily in September, but was officially made the permanent sexton on Monday. Before working in the cemetery, Hansen worked for the city’s parks and recreation department.
“He is just there doing his job,” Bell said. “We’re trying to get the cemetery cleaner and groomed.”
Bell added complaints about tree-trimming in the cemetery are nothing new.
“We have had complaints about the way trees are shaped in the cemetery for years,” she said. “Some of the trees are being shaped by the deer, not us.”
That explanation doesn’t satisfy some who have emotional attachments to the trees they’ve planted.
Tooele resident Sandy Critchlow went to the cemetery the week after Thanksgiving to decorate her brother’s grave with Christmas decorations — something she’s done every year since his death in September 1990 — and was shocked to see that the pine tree she and her mother had planted for him had been drastically trimmed.
“It was a small pine tree, and it had been trimmed just like a stick, straight up,” Critchlow said. “There were only about 6 inches of green left on top. It looked just horrendous.”
Critchlow was so upset she left the cemetery. When she returned on Monday this week, she saw that the trimmed tree had been totally removed and that her brother’s headstone had been shifted to the left by a couple of inches.
“That tree is not replaceable,” she said. “It has been there for years and years. I want to know who got permission to remove the tree. They didn’t even ask the family. Nobody asked me, they just dug it up.”
Bell said there are several different reasons why cemetery workers will remove a tree.
“Some are obstructing sprinklers so when we turn the water on they are in the way of the sprinkler and it will leave a dry spot,” she said. “They could be growing into headstones and the roots could be uplifting the headstones. We’ve removed trees that are diseased or dying, and we remove them if they are in an area where we’ll have to dig a grave.”
Bell said there have also been some cases when trees have had to be removed because they have grown too large.
“It’s due to the fact that the type of tree the families plant look nice when they are little, but then they grow into monstrous trees,” she said. “We have a lot of people who planted large pine trees or blue spruces.”
Critchlow said none of these prohibitions apply to the tree that was planted for her brother.
“His headstone was moved when they removed the tree, but it wasn’t like that before [due to root growth],” she said. “The tree had grown into the headstone, but we kept it trimmed back. It was not diseased and it wasn’t blocking an irrigation line. My husband does landscaping and irrigation and he knows about those things, so I know it wasn’t that. None of that applied to my brother’s headstone or his tree. They overtrimmed the tree and in trying to avoid anyone seeing what they’d done, they snuck up there and cut it out and moved his headstone to do it.”
Bell said several years ago, the city allowed people to plant trees, bushes or flowers next to their relative’s headstones in certain areas of the cemetery, but that practice is no longer allowed.
“We used to allow people to plant trees in the older sections because there was a lot more room between grave spaces, but we don’t allow it anymore,” she said. “Some people still do it without getting permission though.”
Bell said if the city wants to trim or remove a tree that someone has planted for a family member, it doesn’t need anyone’s permission.
“When a person purchases a cemetery lot, they are only purchasing the right to bury there,” she said. “They do not own that spot.”
Bell said she understands that everyone has their own idea as to what looks nice and what they’d like on their graves, but the city’s overall goal is to try to keep everything nice and neat looking. However, for those who have relatives buried there, the goal of the cemetery looking nice isn’t worth what the trees meant to them.
“These trees are ruined,” Wheeler said. “They can never replace those branches that were chopped off.”