Family fights for right to visit dead after road blocked to cemetery

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by Len Cannon / 11 News

khou.com

Posted on June 3, 2010 at 9:45 PM

Updated Friday, Jun 4 at 9:55 AM

LEON COUNTY, Texas—Leon County is home to quiet towns and sprawling pastures, but beneath the surface, there is tension. People who want to visit loved ones buried in a local cemetery are being denied access. Property owners have closed the road leading to the grounds.

"I’m very angry. I’m appalled," said Marcus Mathis.

Mathis grew up in Leon County with his 15 brothers and sisters, and neither of them can visit their father’s grave.

"I am so close, yet so far to see my ancestors. It doesn’t make any sense," said Mathis.

What doesn’t make sense to the Mathis family is not having access to visit deceased family members. The cemetery has been a resting place for members of Bethana Baptist church since the 19th century. Even former slaves are said to be buried there, but all roads leading to the cemetery have been gated and locked.

The Mathis family said they didn’t know roads to the cemetery had been blocked until they tried to take flowers to their dad’s grave on Father’s Day seven years ago.

They later found out the new owners who purchased the property next to the cemetery had cut off access. The owners said they did not want people trespassing, even if they were going to pay their respects to loved ones.

"You have a group of people who think they are God," said Mathis.

Church members sought help from county officials, but said they have been ignored for years.

Leon County Judge Byron Ryder said he does not know why the owners were so adamant about keeping the property closed. He said the Mathis family does have the right to sue.

"We have done everything we can do; brought landowners together, trying to work out compromises and it has just not worked," said Ryder.

The landowners have refused to budge, but Texas law says it's a violation to deny access.

The Texas Health and Safety code says: "Any person who wishes to visit a cemetery or private burial grounds for which no public ingress or egress is available, shall have the right to reasonable ingress and egress for the purpose of visiting the cemetery or private burial grounds."

While the law was clear, it did not outline the consequences for ignoring it, so a Texas lawmaker stepped in.

"It’s a challenge across the state," said State Representative Garnet Coleman. Coleman introduced an amendment to the law that made it a crime to deny access to cemeteries. It is now a class C misdemeanor with fines of up to $500.

"If it is not enough and if people are charged and pay fines, and continue to do it, then we will up the fine and up the charge," said Coleman.

The Mathis family is still waiting. They are not only waiting to visit the grave of their father, a World War II veteran that died in 1986, but to also visit their mother, who died in 2004.

"It’s just ignorance, foolishness, stupidity," said Mathis.

He said the landowners have no respect for the dead or the living.

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