Alan Bruns, city cemetery sexton, says comments at public meetings and in news stories surrounding the disagreement between city officials and Jeff Palmore, Bell Funeral Home, have cast a shadow on the names of individuals who are not here to defend themselves.
Four Bruns family members have held the post of sexton: Robert Bruns, Alan’s great-grandfather, 1880s-1916; August Bruns Sr., Alan’s grandfather, 1916-1974; Raymond Bruns, Alan’s father, 1974-1988, and Alan Bruns, 1988 to the present.
Official cemetery records begin in 1910, although some records date back to 1885, Bruns said.
Palmore and the city have been in litigation since 2008 over what Palmore claims are overcharges by the city, which owns and operates the City Cemetery and Resurrection Hill Cemetery.
Although a judge ruled that it was R.H. Bruns Monument Company that provided the service and collected the fees from Bell Funeral Home, the amount due for grave opening in the two city-owned cemeteries is set by city ordinance and ordinance also dictates that only the sexton can open graves.
“The sexton is the official record keeper of the cemetery,” Bruns said. Duties include selling graves and keeping a register of the owners of all graves.
As owner of the cemeteries, the city was the original seller of lots and grave spaces within lots. Individual grave owners can sell their lots, but sales are recorded through the sexton, Bruns said.
The grave numbering system, which has been challenged by Palmore, was first established in the 1880s when Robert Bruns set up the original grave layout in the oldest section of the cemetery.
In the first section, graves within lots were numbered clockwise one through eight. When the cemetery was expanded and what later became known as the first addition of the cemetery was opened in 1906, Robert Bruns reversed the numbering plan, numbering gravesites within lots counter-clockwise one through eight.
“It may be confusing to some, but it’s there in the records,” Alan Bruns said. “It’s always been that way.”
The city clerk keeps copies of deeds for cemetery lots at city hall, but Bruns maintains the grave registry in the original book set up by Robert Bruns. In a recent interview, Bruns opened the registry book and his computer map of the cemeteries to The Missourian.
“I want the record to show that we know who is buried in the cemetery and where they are located,” Bruns said.
In a recent disagreement, Palmore has accused the city of creating a fictitious individual named Dora Kemper in the city cemetery online database and omitting the name of the Hazel Kemper, who is buried in the grave assigned to Dora Kemper.
In Bruns’ registry book, Hazel Alice Kemper is the name of the individual buried in lot 135, grave space 5.
When computer consultant Nettie Painter created a computer program to enable online searches for graves by surname and date of burial the name Dora Kemper was entered into the computer database. The error over the name was just that, an obvious error, Bruns said.
Bruns recalls that the first name given to him for the July 2001 funeral was Dora Kemper. His handwritten phone log shows that it was Palmore, who gave him the name Dora Kemper at the time of the funeral in July 2001. Bruns then recorded the burial at city hall.
But when the family came to R.H. Bruns Monument Company to order the stone, they gave the name as Hazel Alice Kemper. Bruns changed the registry book to show the correct name.
“I don’t know how they do it at city hall, but my records show that it is Hazel Alice Kemper buried in lot 135, grave 5,” Bruns said.
A newspaper article reported that a family member looking for the grave of Hazel Alice Kemper could not find her name listed in the city’s online database.
Bruns said in the past the city has referred individuals searching for gravesites to him.
“If someone had come to me looking for the grave, I would have found it,” he said.
Bruns said he’s dismayed by repeated public comments referring to August Bruns Sr., his grandfather, who served as city sexton for 58 years.
Dates occasionally show that August Bruns buried individuals in lots the city still owned. Several days later he purchased the lots and sold them to the family of the deceased, often charging the family $5 more than he paid for the lots.
“I’m sure that Grandpa never cheated anybody,” Bruns said. “The records show what he paid for the lots and what the families paid for them. This was the way it worked between him and the city.”
Palmore’s claim of a $225 overcharge also was a result of the arrangement between the sexton and the city, Bruns said.
“In 1992, I was charging $360 to open a grave. Part of that fee went to me and part to the city,” he said.
“In 1995, I told Mr. Openlander (John Openlander, former city administrator) that I was increasing my fee,” he explained. “Mr. Openlander told me the city shouldn’t have to keep changing ordinances, that I should collect my own fees and pay the city its portion, so that’s what I did.”
After Palmore sought reimbursement for the difference between what he was charged and the fee set by ordinance, the city reverted to the previous system. New ordinances were created, setting the fee, which is now collected by the city collector.
At the same time, a new ordinance was approved stipulating that only the sexton could open graves in the city cemeteries.
“I’m glad they went back to the ordinance,” Bruns said. “This is the way it’s always been.”
Bruns said he is disheartened by the continued acrimony between Palmore and city officials and feels that he and family members who served as sextons before him are caught in the middle.
“The taxpayers are having to pay for part of this case,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I’m paying too.”
Since the litigation began, Bruns said he has spent $33,000 on lawyers to defend R. H. Bruns Monument Company.
“I hate it, but I had to because the business name was dragged into it,” he said.
The ongoing dispute appears to be more and more personal aimed at him and his family, the sexton said.
“I wish this whole thing would go away,” Bruns said. “I treat every customer with the same respect. That’s the way I was taught.”
The appeal of the current litigation is set to be heard in the downtown St. Louis Court of Appeal Feb. 14.