PHOENIX, ARIZONA – Twice a month, Margo Dorrough places silk flowers beneath her husband’s marker at the Phoenix National Memorial Cemetery.
She fusses over the arrangements, choosing flowers that her husband would have liked, carefully securing them to containers that are planted into the ground.
Unlike real flowers, the silk ones don’t quickly lose their luster; the bright, cheerful colors offer a vibrant challenge to the austere desertscape of the cemetery where 57,000 service members are laid to rest.
But Dorrough said the flowers have attracted the attention of thieves along with visitors. After two of her arrangements disappeared in the past few months, she said cemetery staff warned her that flowers were being stolen from grave sites.
Dorrough, 63, said staff members advised her to buy cheaper flowers in order to dissuade thieves from taking them, possibly to resell them online.
“When I called to complain, (a staff member) said I should buy flowers at the Dollar Store, to buy something that somebody won’t want to steal,” Dorrough said. “I was aghast.”
The issue of thefts raises questions of security at the 225-acre cemetery, north of Highway 101 on Cave Creek Road, which is neither locked nor gated and has limited surveillance and no permanent security.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees the cemetery, say there is no theft problem. They say it is more likely the flowers are being blown from their anchors by strong desert winds that buffet the grounds every afternoon. The loose flowers are then picked up and disposed of by maintenance crews.
“I have been here six years and do not see a significant problem with theft,” cemetery director Wayne Ellis said. “As far as a black market for plastic flowers … I’m not aware of that at all.”
Some members of veterans groups, such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, say they have heard talk of thefts, but they say problems are not exclusive to the National Memorial Cemetery.
“I’ve heard that things disappear out there,” said Darrell Vance, a member of American Legion Post No. 1 in Phoenix and of the Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle club that attends funerals of service members. “It happens everywhere.”
Expense, not theft
Cemetery officials are adamant that they have no information about flower thefts. But they acknowledge telling visitors not to buy expensive floral arrangements to put on markers.
The staff warns visitors to not leave silk arrangements in displays, which can sell for $30 to $50 apiece, and suggests instead to purchase flowers from discount stores.
Ellis says that isn’t for fear of thefts but because flowers are routinely picked up and thrown away by groundskeepers. He also said flowers are cleaned up during systematic sweeps of the grounds.
He says the staff does not want to see anybody go to the expense of buying nice arrangements only to have them blown over and scattered by a dust devil or trashed as part of routine cleanup.
Cemetery policy requires groundskeepers to pick up any flowers that look worn, wilted or faded from the hyper-neat rows of ground markers and at the base of vaults, which visitors call “the walls.”
The cemetery provides temporary plastic containers to hold flowers, and only two vases per site are permitted.
“Sometimes, people will come and take (flowers),” administrative officer Deborah Ryan said, adding that they will move flowers from one grave to put on another. “There is not really a way for us to monitor that. There’s nobody out there touring.”
Ryan said the cemetery does not keep a log tracking reports of missing flowers. She said people periodically complain of flowers disappearing, but those are isolated cases.
Both she and Ellis said they have not heard of organized thefts or have reason to believe flowers are being stolen and resold.
A review of online auction and classified-advertising websites in the Phoenix area did not reveal questionable listings for silk flowers. On eBay, most arrangements came from a single store, which produces and designs silk flowers. Craigslist advertisements were for single sales, mostly related to garage sales, with no uniform seller or listings.
But Dorrough said when she called to complain flowers were missing from her husband’s marker, a cemetery staff member said flowers were being stolen and sold online.
“I called the office … and spoke with a woman who said since the cemetery staff is not there in the evenings (or) on weekends, that people come through and steal the best flower arrangements and sell them on roadside stands and on eBay and Craigslist,” Dorrough said.
Dorrough said she noticed that other arrangements were still in place at nearby vaults, so she assumed they hadn’t been picked up in a maintenance sweep. She also doesn’t believe the flowers were blown away by a wind.
“It would have to have been a hurricane to blow it out from there,” she said.
Dorrough said the flowers were set into a plastic-foam base, which she’d secured into a sturdy, store-bought container. Another widow at the cemetery confided that she, too, had lost flowers to theft, Dorrough said.
“This is so disrespectful,” she said. “What kind of person would do that, and what kind of person would knowingly allow such a thing to happen?”
A ‘renaissance man’
Jon Dorrough was 65 years old when he died of cancer six months ago. A cryptographer in the U.S. Army, he served in Vietnam and later became an electrical engineer.
In 2009, he published a mystery novel called “The Last Grave,” about the theft of Native American antiquities and set on the San Carlos Reservation. He was also a country-Western dancer.
Margo Dorrough calls her husband a “renaissance man.” She says that after he died she bought a variety of silk-flower arrangements so that there would always be new ones on his grave.
On Memorial Day, she said, she left one of those special arrangements beneath his marker in the E-section of vaults, which are aligned in vertical columns of three in the so-called walls.
Dorrough said she returned a week later to the marker and found the flowers were gone. She said she continued to place flowers at the foot of the marker until a second bouquet disappeared a month later, in June.
Dorrough, an administrative assistant in the Phoenix Community and Economic Development Department, said she complained after two silk arrangements vanished from her husband’s marker in about a month.
“I purchased several nice bouquets to place at Jon’s cremation site on the wall, and now I’m afraid to leave them,” she said. “I don’t want to purchase cheap flowers in hopes that they won’t be worthy of being stolen.”
But Dorrough said officials left her with little choice, and this summer she started buying flowers at discount stores and using the plastic containers provided by the cemetery.
Since switching out the flowers and containers, Dorrough said, she has not lost a single flower. She said she doesn’t believe that is a coincidence.
She said officials owe it to veterans and their families to better protect the cemetery.
“If they know this is going on, why don’t they have staff or volunteers guard the graves of our heroes?” she said.
Cases of theft
Thefts and vandalism at cemeteries are not unusual. And the National Memorial Cemetery has avoided major thefts that have made headlines at other grave sites in the Valley and across the country.
On Memorial Day, 500 bronze vases valued at about $480 each were stolen from the Phoenix Memorial Cemetery. Phoenix police arrested four people, they say, after two of the suspects tried to sell the vases to a metal-recycling company.
Another theft of vases was reported in November from 180 grave sites at the Sunwest Funeral Home in El Mirage. Police arrested two men in that case.
Similar cemetery thefts have been reported in Chicago, Wisconsin and Connecticut, among others.
Quartermaster Bob Hysko of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9400 in Phoenix said he is not aware of any thefts at the National Memorial Cemetery.
The VFW, along with the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans, performs honor-guard ceremonies at the cemetery, including firing squads and other military honors.
Hysko said most missing items are probably picked up by groundskeepers. He also said the cemetery sometimes floods during heavy rain and wonders whether weather is a bigger culprit than thieves.
American Legion member Vance said he first heard about thefts at the National Memorial Cemetery about nine months ago, but he said he couldn’t remember anything specific. He also said he was aware of thefts from other cemeteries, and the advice is fairly much universal.
“Don’t leave valuables behind,” he said. “Sometimes you want to leave, say, a challenge coin on your best friend’s grave. And then the challenge coin will disappear.”
Vance said there ought to be a way “to lock down” cemeteries to prevent thefts.
If officials attempted to restrict access to the National Memorial Cemetery, Ellis says it would be met with outrage.
“The main reason we don’t close is that we would have an uprising,” the director said, adding that so far nothing has happened to warrant installing gates or imposing stricter security.
When the cemetery opened in 1978, it was operated by the state. According to a U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs website, the cemetery was transferred to the federal government in 1989.
In 1999, more than $13 million was spent on improvements, including landscaping and the construction of a visitor center, assembly area, committal shelters and a founders plaza. There are at least 18 monuments and memorials at the cemetery, including an eternal flame and World War II submarine torpedo monuments.
In May, Arizona’s largest Memorial Day event was held at the cemetery, which featured a flyover by World War II-era planes, a flag display and a motorcycle procession honoring veterans.
The cemetery is supposed to close at sunset, but there is little to stop anyone from coming in after-hours. Nothing bars the entrance. Although the entrance could be blocked with removable bollards, there are no immediate plans to do that.
Ellis said officials recognize that visitors often arrive after-hours, especially in the summer when it is hot during the day.
He notes that the cemetery employs a private security company to patrol the grounds at night, and video cameras have been installed in key locations. Officials say there have been no recent reports of any problems.
Additional security would be superfluous and not worth the “inconvenience on a significant number of people for a few losses of flowers.”