Grieving dad, cemetery owner in uncivil war over gravesite decorations

Carlisle’s Ashland Cemetery is historic.

“We have a Medal of Honor recipient buried here,” said Steve Ewing, Ashland’s owner.

There are many Civil War dead buried here.

You can also find patriotic souls placing flags on graves. Vinny Capozzi’s grave site was especially decorated. His family says the National Anthem was his favorite song and he loved the flag. That’s why they put red, white and blue, pinwheels, hats and beads here, there and everywhere around his grave.

“Grief is a process, grief is a long process,” explained Lou Capozzi. “Being able to decorate Vinny’s grave makes us closer to Vinny.”

Vinny Capozzi had a rare childhood disease that took him at the age of 8 four years ago.

Nearly every major holiday since – Valentines Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day and Easter – the Capozzi family decorated Vinny’s grave.

“We want to make sure that he knows we are still celebrating along with him and that he is not excluded from the family,” said Liza Capozzi, Vinny’s teenage sister.

But not everyone is celebrating.

“I have no idea how all that stuff on that thing would help anybody grieve. Right now, it looks like a disaster,” Ewing said.

Ewing is a fifth-generation funeral director. He recently posted rules and regulations on a wooden stake near the Capozzi plot. Rule two says owners reserve the right to remove anything “they consider injurious to the general appearance of the grounds.”

In late April, Ewing removed and boxed up Vinny’s Easter decorations.

“This is a historic cemetery where there’s honor, dignity and respect that has to be shown here,” Ewing said. “These are hallowed grounds, and having pinwheels and flags and Mardi Gras beads and party hats just did not seem appropriate to me.”

Capozzi was furious. He never got a call from Ewing and still hasn’t gotten Vinny’s belongings returned. He showed up in early May with his son Victor to find Vinny’s grave bare.

“Who has the heart to just take that off a defenseless 8-year-olds’ gravestone like that?” Victor asked.

Ewing showed us the plastic tub nearly filled with the Capozzi’s Easter decorations. He called the items an eyesore and a menace for the maintenance men.

“These are some dangerous items that can do serious damage to my mowers and people passing by,” he said. “It is out of control.”

Ewing admits not giving Capozzi a heads-up phone call about the removal because, he said, he didn’t think it would do any good.

But the family has been decorating for major holidays for four years with no problem?

“Because I felt, in a way, sorry for the fella,” Ewing said. “He just lost his 8-year-old son and it wasn’t too bad at the beginning, but as the years went by, it started to keep on growing. It was like a virus. It became a virus, hanging things on trees,” he said of the decorations.

Capozzi, an attorney, spent $25,000 for the plot and more than twice that amount on marble monuments. He insists case law is on his side and gives him decoration rights.

“Any rule by a cemetery owner that violates those rights is illegal, unenforceable, and invalid,” Capozzi said.

“It’s my cemetery,” Ewing countered. “I pay the taxes here. I pay the liability insurance. I am responsible for what goes on in here”

Capozzi has filed an injunction asking the court to stop Ewing from removing the current decorations.

ABC27 contacted both the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association and the Real Estate Commission which oversees cemetery companies in the state. Neither would comment on the specifics of this case. Both, however, suggested that, generally, a customer buys the right to use and have access to the land but not own it.

Neither man has a signed contract. Capozzi blamed the grief of losing his son for that oversight. He says he never got or agreed to those rules and regulations that Ewing is now enforcing. Ewing says the rules have been in place for decades and that he offered Capozzi a copy, but Capozzi said he didn’t need them.

Hopefully, those in repose in Ashland are in serene slumber, because above ground there’s little resting and there’s no peace.

“This is my right,” Capozzi said forcefully of the decorations on his Vinny’s grave, “and no one is going to take that away from me.”

Ewing countered with a threat to eject a grieving dad.

“If he does not want to abide by the rules and regulations to promote safety, honor, dignity and respect in the cemetery, I will have him not come in,” he said.

That sounds harsh.

“It is harsh,” Ewing said.

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