DADE CITY — It rained Wednesday when Stephanie Perez visited her infant daughter's grave, which was appropriate. She always thinks of Isabella when it rains. It's like the little girl is smiling down on her.
Perez had just found out that a week before, someone dug up her baby's grave without her permission. Wednesday, rain drops fell on the grass beginning to poke out of the dirt.
"I wanted nothing but for my daughter to rest in peace," said Perez, 21. "But she's been tortured."
Isabella Marie Perez died in her crib July 12 at 31/2 months old. The Pasco Sheriff's Office is conducting an investigation, as they usually do when a child dies. So far, they said, they have found nothing suspicious. The family said Isabella died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Stephanie Perez is not wealthy. Her husband, Hector, 27, helps with cleanup of demolished buildings around the country. She is a stay-at-home mom to their son and daughter. But she is rich in family. She and her sister, Melissa, married brothers. Their children are more like siblings than cousins. Perez' family promised to help her financially and emotionally through her daughter's death.
In their search for an affordable burial, they met Michael Hodges, owner of Hodges Funeral Home in Dade City. He offered to host the baby's funeral at cost, saving the family thousands.
"He said a mother should never have to pay for having her child buried," said Melissa Perez, 30. "He sounded like an angel sent from God."
Big funeral discount
Isabella's $572 funeral was held July 16 at the funeral home and the Dade City Cemetery. The family couldn't afford a headstone. A small metal sign marks the baby's resting spot under an oak tree three stories high.
The day of the funeral, Hodges left the cemetery shortly before the baby was buried, Perez said. Some of his employees stayed behind. The family braced themselves emotionally to watch Isabella's casket lowered into the ground. But they said they didn't get the chance.
"They rushed us away. They wouldn't lower it with us standing there," said Melissa Perez.
"That is absolutely not true," said Michael Hodges. "We always allow families to stay over the casket, most do not, more than 90 percent choose not to."
When Isabella was placed in the ground that Wednesday in July, her casket was encased in a plywood shipping container. The container was fine by state code, but it violated the Dade City Cemetery's rules, which require concrete or fiberglass vaults, a measure aimed at protecting the city's groundwater.
Cemetery caretaker Mariarose Kussler watched the burial and alerted city officials and the family that there was a problem with the container. She did not wish to talk to a reporter.
Hodges said he was not aware of the rule. He always used vaults for adult burials, but at the Dade City cemeteries he owns — Chapel Hill Gardens and Floral Memory Gardens — he's used the smaller plywood shipping containers for infants' caskets.
"The shipping container is also used as a vault and is acceptable at most cemeteries, including my own," Hodges said Wednesday. "And I think I'm one of the strictest (owners) around."
On Aug. 8, City Manager Billy Poe sent a letter to Hodges that said the normal $200 fine for not using a vault would be waived if Hodges fixed the problem "in a timely manner."
Four days later, Perez said she went to visit her daughter's grave. The ground was disturbed. Instead of the soft grass that had previously covered the grave, there was dirt. She saw the outline of a shovel in the ground and tire marks nearby.
The next day, Hodges wrote a note to Poe:
"Please be advised that on Tuesday, August 12, the remains of infant Isabella Perez were transferred to and reinterred in the Dade City Cemetery utilizing a fiberglass combination casket/vault."
Mother didn't know
This was news to Perez. She did not know the city and Hodges were in contact about her baby's grave. She found out from a reporter that her child's casket had been dug up and reburied.
"I wanted to be there to make sure everything was right," she said, weeping.
Hodges said he thought notifying the family would only open old wounds.
"I saw no reason to cause them undue stress, undue hurt and harm," he said.
The scenario was presented to Timothy Wheeton at the state's Division of Funeral, Cemetery & Consumer Services. He said Hodges may have broken the law, which states that before anyone disinters a grave, they must obtain written permission from the next of kin.
Hodges doesn't believe he broke any laws. He finds the whole incident "unsettling." He said he often performs infant funerals at cost, trying to do the right thing for the grieving parents.
"They're always young families. They don't have money," he said. "Here, I did everything. I paid for everything. And they want to hang me out to dry and crucify me when what I did is acceptable in most cemeteries."
The proper vault cost him an additional $300, he said.
"He was trying to do a good thing by the family," Poe said. "Unfortunately, it didn't meet our rules."
The city will not investigate past burials conducted at the cemetery to see if any rules were broken.
Poe added that the city may change the cemetery's bylaws and do away with requiring vaults.
Helen Anne Travis can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 435-7312.