The dead are a common target for thieves.
It was no secret to London business owner Tim Wilson, the grandson of a cemetery caretaker who saw 17 cast iron urns stolen in a single night in the 1980s.
But that knowledge didn’t soften the blow when thieves ripped the urn from his mother’s grave earlier this month.
“I just can’t fathom how people steal from the dead,” Wilson said. “It’s awful.”
Kirkwood Cemetery used to house nearly 50 cast iron urns, Wilson estimates. The 125-plus-year-old pieces were crafted by Hungarian, Czech and Finnish immigrants at Kramer Brothers Foundry in Dayton, he said.
“They brought these trades from the old world,” Wilson said.
While he was growing up, Wilson’s mother and grandmother would care for the urns, painting and planting them each year.
But today, few urns remain at the cemetery, located southwest of the city off U.S. Route 42.
While the vintage works can fetch a high price at auction, the more likely scenario is that the pieces are being scrapped.
Madison County Sheriff Jim Sabin described cemetery theft as “sporadic.” In the majority of cases, the thieves are scrapping the metal, he said.
“It’s a minimal return, but they’re a relatively easy target, especially after hours,” Sabin said.
But cemeteries aren’t the only targets, he said. When scrap prices rise, small metal items or equipment, like ladders, start disappearing from yards, he said.
Growing drug use also correlates with increases in small thefts, Sabin said.
Recent laws that require various identification have made it more difficult for thieves to scrap commonly stolen materials, such as copper wiring. But for the laws to be effective, scrapyards must be in compliance, he said.
Around the same time Wilson’s mother’s urn was stolen, the urn at the gravesite of David Litchfield’s grandmother’s uncle — his namesake — was also stolen.
He went to the cemetery to check for needed repairs, and instead found the piece missing. He estimates it was about four feet tall and weighed between 200 and 300 pounds.
“I deal with thefts everyday,” the London police sergeant said. “It’s not surprising that someone would steal it, just disappointing. The only real value it has is to me and my family.”
Neither Litchfield nor Wilson will replace those pieces of their families’ memorials — it is simply too costly when there is no guarantee they wouldn’t be stolen again, they agreed.
“Maybe it’s not in people’s DNA anymore, but the cemetery was sacred to me,” Wilson said. “It’s OK, no one died, but I’m not putting another one out there, because why give someone drug money?”
No fault lies with the caretakers, Litchfield added.
“It’s a big place to try to protect,” he said.
Sheriff’s deputies patrol area cemeteries. But neither the regular vehicle, nor the odd vehicle, is unusual.
“People drive in and out every day,” said Gloria Penwell, secretary/treasurer of Oak Hill Cemetery on Lafayette Street. “You don’t pay attention when someone drives in.”
Last year, someone entered the cemetery and stole all the tools in the maintenance shed while the caretaker was mowing.
“He was right there,” Penwell said. “I couldn’t believe that.”
Occasionally an urn is gone, but there’s no point in reporting it, she said. Cemeteries will see a certain amount of theft every year, though the thieves have to be “pretty dog-gone low,” she added.
Kirkwood Cemetery caretaker Doug Weimar described the thieves as “lazy” with “no scruples.”
“You always have stuff stolen,” he said. “They’ll take anything they can take to a flea market and sell.”
He hopes they choke on the money, he added.
“A normal person would think it is terrible stealing off the dead,” Weimar said. “It is. But down through history, people have stolen off the dead. That’s just the way it is.”
Reach Audrey Ingram at 740-852-1616, ext. 1615 or on Twitter @Audrey.MP