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Ruling over St. Petersburg cemetery could force 24 families to move loved ones

The cemetery’s former owner says a gravel path was not allowed to be removed to make way for the graves. A judge agreed.
Besa Hoxhalli, left, is consoled by Lisa Perrigo at the Sunnyside Cemetery in St. Petersburg. Hoxhalli’s mother is buried at the Sunnyside Cemetery and Perrigo’s husband is also buried there. When Sunnyside Cemetery's founding family sold the burial ground, they did so with the contractual condition that the historic section's layout not be changed, specifically calling for the gravel path to remain. The new owner removed the path and began burying people where it was. The founding family took the matter to court and a judge ruled in their favor. Now, 24 families might have to move their loved ones' graves so the path can be returned.
Besa Hoxhalli, left, is consoled by Lisa Perrigo at the Sunnyside Cemetery in St. Petersburg. Hoxhalli’s mother is buried at the Sunnyside Cemetery and Perrigo’s husband is also buried there. When Sunnyside Cemetery's founding family sold the burial ground, they did so with the contractual condition that the historic section's layout not be changed, specifically calling for the gravel path to remain. The new owner removed the path and began burying people where it was. The founding family took the matter to court and a judge ruled in their favor. Now, 24 families might have to move their loved ones' graves so the path can be returned. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Feb. 22|Updated Feb. 22

ST. PETERSBURG — Angela Lowry said she was in a “fog” in the days following the July 2020 death of her mother, Susan Wren.

“Everything in my head was blurry,” said Lowry, who works in the marketing department for The Poynter Institute, the nonprofit that owns the Tampa Bay Times. “The only thing we knew for sure is that mom wanted to be buried” at Sunnyside Cemetery in St. Petersburg. “That’s what we did.”

Now, Wren may need to be exhumed and buried elsewhere.

Another 23 graves could share that fate.

They are caught in the middle of a court case between the cemetery’s founding family and current owner over whether burials are allowed in a section of Sunnyside at 5300 19th St. N.

In November, a judge with Pinellas County’s Sixth Judicial Circuit Court ruled the burials breached a decades-old contract, but delayed an order to move the graves. The two sides and the burial plot owners were ordered to find another solution.

Three of the impacted families told the Times that they are at an impasse. They said they’ve only been asked if they are willing to move the graves — and they are not.

“Their family members are not affected, so it seems like they don’t care,” Besa Hoxhalli said of the current and former cemetery owners

Her mother, Rabihan Hoxhalli, was buried there in February 2019.

“Moving her will be like starting over,” Hoxhalli said. “It will be like she died again, and we have to deal with that grief again.”

Attorney Caitlein Jammo, who represents the family that founded Sunnyside, said her clients are “certainly mindful of the effects of the defendant’s failure to comply ... and the position all these families are put in by this conduct ... We’re all trying to find a solution.”

Via email, the Times asked cemetery owner Foundation Partners whether they would pay for the expenses if the graves have to be moved and whether they had empty lots in Sunnyside that could be provided. A spokesperson for Foundation Partners said the company “cannot comment on a case that is currently in litigation.”

Besa Hoxhalli brushes off leaves at her mother’s grave at the Sunnyside Cemetery in St. Petersburg. “Moving her will be like starting over,” Hoxhalli said. “It will be like she died again, and we have to deal with that grief again.”
Besa Hoxhalli brushes off leaves at her mother’s grave at the Sunnyside Cemetery in St. Petersburg. “Moving her will be like starting over,” Hoxhalli said. “It will be like she died again, and we have to deal with that grief again.” [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

A gravel path is at the center of the lawsuit.

Established in the late 1800s by Nathaniel Ellis, Sunnyside was initially named the Ellis Graveyard and was only for his family.

John O’Berry purchased the cemetery in 1904. On that land he then founded the Sunnyside Cemetery, which was open to the public. He added a gravel path to provide easier access to graves, his descendants previously told the Times.

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The path was the shape of a horseshoe and extended from one entrance to another.

The cemetery remained with O’Berry’s descendants until 1985, when they sold it to Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home. But they did so with a caveat — a covenant stating the historic section’s layout not be changed, specifically stating that the gravel path could not be removed or replaced with concrete.

Anderson-McQueen expanded the cemetery by buying the neighboring lot to the west, but did not alter the original section’s aesthetics.

The funeral home sold the cemetery in 2017 to Orlando-based Foundation Partners.

The new owner then closed the entrances to the historic section, removed the path and, according to the judge’s ruling, created 184 additional burial plots in the path’s footprint. They sold 82 of those new plots, 24 of which are now occupied.

Foundation Partners argued that they had to bury people there “to meet consumer demand,” according to the ruling.

But that “does not excuse or mitigate its intentional conduct in violation of the express terms and conditions of the 1985 agreement” that remains binding, the ruling says. “The defendant clearly breached and otherwise violated the 1985 agreement by removing the stabilized driveway.”

The ruling acknowledged that restoring the path would be traumatic for the families involved.

Angela Lowry, left, clears leaves from her mother’s gravestone while visiting along with her sister Wendy Ehrecke, right, at the Sunnyside Cemetery in St. Petersburg.
Angela Lowry, left, clears leaves from her mother’s gravestone while visiting along with her sister Wendy Ehrecke, right, at the Sunnyside Cemetery in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The judge, Thomas Ramsberger, gave the parties 120 days from the day of the ruling, Nov. 23, 2021. If there is not a solution by then, the founding family and Foundation Partners must set a case management conference “as soon as feasible” to schedule a hearing that will include those with burial plots in that section.

Meanwhile, Foundation Partners was told to inform plot owners of the circumstances.

O’Berry’s descendants filed the lawsuit on June 28, 2019.

There were 12 burials in that area when the Times first wrote about this dispute in September 2020. Another 12 have been buried there since.

“This is all greed on the part of Sunnyside,” said Lisa Perrigo, whose husband, Steven Perrigo, was buried there in March 2019. “Why would they sell this to me knowing this could happen?”

That was among the questions the Times asked Foundation Partners when a spokesperson said they could not comment.

Hoxhalli cannot understand why this path is so important to the founding family.

“What is their endgame?” she said.

The founding family did not respond to a request for comment, but previously told the Times the path was the only way their elder members could access gravesites. They said the path also needed to be returned because they want to honor O’Berry’s original vision for the cemetery.

Asked if the founding family would be willing to have a different path installed or if there is any other solution other than restoring the original and moving 24 graves, their attorney said, “Hopefully there will be some solution that can best mitigate the issue.”

Hoxhalli said her mother, who died at 68 from complications of a stroke, “was the pillar of our family and the glue of the house, after we migrated from Albania in 1999. My mom would fight for us. So I have to fight for her. I can’t meet her again and tell her I didn’t do everything I could.”

Lisa Perrigo, left, lays an Ohio State mascot doll and flowers at the gravesite of her late husband at the Sunnyside Cemetery in St. Petersburg. At right is Wendy Ehrecke, whose mother is also buried at the cemetery.
Lisa Perrigo, left, lays an Ohio State mascot doll and flowers at the gravesite of her late husband at the Sunnyside Cemetery in St. Petersburg. At right is Wendy Ehrecke, whose mother is also buried at the cemetery. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Perrigo’s husband died of a heart attack at 51.

“My husband had just died,” said Perrigo in between sobs. “I didn’t know what to do. I called and bought a plot. I wasn’t going to Google the cemetery to see what litigation they are in.”

Susan Wren’s other daughter, Wendy Ehrecke, said her mother, who died of cancer at 65, would take walks and bike rides through the Sunnyside neighborhood and stop at the cemetery.

“She just loved its unique feel,” Ehrecke said. “She loved the shade. She loved the graves from the 1800s. This is where she wanted to be.”

The Wren, Perrigo and Hoxhalli families met when Perrigo walked the cemetery, wrote down the family names of those impacted by the lawsuit, and reached out to them.

Now, they speak regularly, saying they lean on one another for emotional support.

“That grief and sadness we experienced the first time we buried our loved ones is back,” Hoxhalli said. “We shouldn’t have to lose the same family member twice.”

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