WEBSTER, Texas – The Vela family says it was the one discovery they didn’t need to make at an already painful time.
Their 45-year-old sister Maria had recently passed away from health problems. She was the acting matriarch of the family, since their mother died 17 years earlier due to cancer.
“She did everything,” recalled 25 year-old Michelle Vela. “She raised me, supported me, she basically just has a big part in the woman that I’ve become today.”
The family found themselves in late September at Forest Park East Cemetery in Webster, about to put their sister to rest.
The Velas own a family plot at the cemetery. Their mother had been previously buried there too.
“It’s kind of like a double-whammy,” explained Guadalupe after he noticed that his mother’s grave, after 17 years, wasn’t where it previously was.
“This was it,” said Vela standing near a recently disturbed patch of ground in the cemetery. “The final resting spot, or so we chose to believe.”
He and family members recalled that it was originally 10 feet from a tree. The family witnessed the internment, and for years visited the spot where the tombstone stood, bearing their hearts to mom.
“How many tears have been shed at this spot?” the KHOU 11 News I-Team asked Vela.
“Countless,” Vela replied.
“I went to the 10 feet away,” Vela explained, “To the right of the tree and she was gone.”
He said he eventually found his mother’s tombstone moved to another spot, 20 feet west of where it was.
Even worse, the Velas say no one from Forest Park East Cemetery had told them anything about it.
“It’s like a slap in the face,” said Michelle Vela. “To think that she’s been gone for so long and they’re so casual about it, or they seem so nonchalant about it. Just moving headstones around.”
But her brothers say when they tried to find out what was going on, they got few answers, except one particularly alarming one.
“Their exact words were: ‘We’re more than certain that she’s there where the marker is now because they probed,’” said Guadalupe.
The family now wonders if the cemetery really had an idea where their mother’s actual remains were being kept.
“We know there’s a marker there,” said Guadalupe Vela staring at the spot where his mother’s grave marker now sits. “But we don’t know if her body’s here or over there.”
“We need to know where my mom’s casket (is), where my mom’s body is at,” said Michelle Vela. “So that we can actually go visit her and know that we’re there for her, not just a piece of dirt, I mean not just hovering over an empty plot.”
“I would be extremely offended if this happened,” explained Wayne Derrick. He’s a member of the advocacy group, Funeral Consumers Alliance of Houston.
Derrick said, if the family’s claims are true, the cemetery made a mistake on several fronts.
“If there was some reason they should have moved the headstone the family should have been notified, should have agreed to it,” Derrick said.
The KHOU 11 News I-Team approached the cemetery’s manager, Fernando Crucet for answers.
“I’m not in a position to answer that,” said the man in charge of Forest Park East Cemetery. When the I-Team asked him if the families involved deserved answers, Crucet said he had other families at the funeral home, and walked away without answering the question.
The Velas aren’t the only family looking for answers.
Forest Park East Cemetery is owned by Service Corporation International, or SCI.
The company is a giant in the funeral business, but has been repeatedly sued by families across the country.
Those lawsuits claim SCI workers moved without families’ permissions, and in some cases, lost the remains of loved ones.
An SCI spokesperson said she couldn’t speak about the Vela case, but said that when mistakes happen, the company has a policy of full disclosure with the families involved.
The Velas aren’t buying it.
“People put, confide in the cemetery their loved one,” said Guadalupe Vela shaking his head, his voice trailing off.
“You guys trusted?” the I-Team asked Vela.
“Yeah, maybe too much trust,” he said.
The Vela family has talked with an attorney, but Guadalupe Vela said until his mother’s casket is exhumed, and the remains tested, doubts will remain.
Under Texas law, cemeteries are not required to report mistakes requiring the moving of tombstones.
The Funeral Consumers Alliance said many times families won’t realize a mix-up happened, unless a family member regularly visits the gravesite.