By GAIGE DAVILA
Special to the NEWS
When Albert Vega, Funeral Director for Thomae-Garza Funeral Home, went to pay for a space for an upcoming funeral at the San Benito Memorial Park cemetery, he assumed it would be business as usual.
Walk in, pay for the space up front, with a check, for a family who just lost a loved one, then get reimbursed by the funeral home’s insurance provider later. Vega, who has worked at Thomae-Garza for 19 years, has always done it this way.
But last Friday, San Benito Memorial Park declined his check. They told him he needed to pay for the space in cash, upfront. Vega, not having the cash on hand, was forced to have a colleague withdraw cash from their personal funds to front the cost. Vega reimbursed them after.
“In the past 32 years I’ve been in the funeral industry, this is the first time that I hear of a city doing that to the families,” Vega told the NEWS on a phone call.
The last time Vega paid for a space at San Benito Memorial Park was last March, the start of the world’s COVID-19 pandemic, with a check. Thomae-Garza provides funeral services across the Rio Grande Valley, at private and city cemeteries, all of whom accept checks for space payments, Vega said.
Vega said paying cash for plots makes filing claims with Thomae-Garza’s insurance difficult because they want to see records of transactions before reimbursing funds.
On May 19, 2020, the City of San Benito amended an ordinance established in September 2011 on pricing and payments for the city’s cemetery: plots bought in advance can be paid with 25% down and finished in 12 monthly installments, and; plots bought for an immediate funeral had to be paid in full before the burial. In the 2011 ordinance, there are no payment methods listed.
When asked why the city was only accepting cash for at-need burials, and if the policy change was influenced by increasing demand for cemetery spaces when people were dying from COVID-19, City Manager Manuel De La Rosa said it did not.
“Rate and policy changes for the City’s cemetery had been in discussion well before the COVID-19 pandemic began and had nothing to do with the Coronavirus outbreak,” De La Rosa said in a statement to the NEWS. “The decision to require full payment upfront by only cash, cashier check or money order for at-need plots is simply a matter of how the City conducts business and is a policy that was in place prior to the updated ordinance.”
Vega said the reasoning the city gave him for the policy change was that they have had difficulties getting full payments for plots from families after the funeral is completed.
“I don’t think it’s fair for the families, the loved ones,” Vega said of the cemetery requesting cash payments upfront for plots. “(These families are) taking a step back in life, they’re in total chaos, they lost a loved one.”
Vega said that most families have small life insurance policies, making paying for funeral services and plots at cemeteries upfront difficult. He says the city should be more understanding of their financial situation and their grieving.
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