Families devastated after graveside crosses, mementoes removed at former Wheeler Cemetery

Families whose loved ones are buried in a cemetery that recently changed ownership say they're heartbroken after flowers, crosses and mementoes placed at gravesites were removed without their knowledge, including a cross that had been used as a marker for a grave without a headstone.

New owner of Sage Creek Cemetery and Crematorium says items were removed for maintenance of grounds

One of Carrie Mckenzie's sons rests his head on his grandmother's headstone, after the family's mementoes were removed without their knowledge last month. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Families whose loved ones are buried in a Winnipeg-area cemetery that recently changed ownership say they're heartbroken after flowers, crosses and mementoes placed at gravesites were removed without their knowledge, including a cross that had been used as a grave marker.

Carrie Mckenzie said she's feeling "hurt — for my mom, for my family," and "disrespected" after she lost wreaths, flowers and a dream catcher she'd placed at the graves of her mother, aunt, cousin and her son's father in Sage Creek Cemetery and Crematorium.

"We put them here for a reason: because it represents [my mom], and it represents my son's dad. It represents my aunt, my cousin, and that's all gone now. It's just mud."

The cemetery on Symington Road — just inside Winnipeg's east Perimeter Highway, but technically within the rural municipality of Springfield —  was formerly called Wheeler Cemetery. The items were removed in July, after the cemetery changed ownership on July 5.

Mackenzie said her 14-year-old son is "very hurt. He's in a lot of pain," after the cross used to mark his father's resting place was removed.

"It's not fair at all. He doesn't even know where his dad is buried now."

Mckenzie said she knows her son's father is buried at the foot of her mother's grave, but she doesn't know exactly where his plot begins. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Mckenzie was able to recover the crosses belonging to her cousin and her son's father. But she said the families should have been notified first.

"Anybody in their right mind would do that," she said.

'This is new, and we're learning'

The cemetery's new owner, William Mandryk, said he cleared the cemetery to accommodate maintenance work, including levelling out sunken graves and lawn care.

Mandryk took ownership of the cemetery after former owner Chad Wheeler's company — Wheeler Funeral Home, Cemetery and Crematorium — went into court-ordered receivership in 2018. Wheeler had his funeral director licence revoked and dozens of clients came forward with complaints.

The complaints included missing money, mixed-up ashes and twice-sold cemetery plots. Earlier this year, Winnipeg police searched the cemetery's retention ponds after allegations Wheeler had thrown cremated ashes sealed in a plastic bag into the ponds.

Mckenzie said her family members' graves were once decorated with sentimental items, stones and flowers. Now, they're bare and the items are gone. (Submitted by Carrie Mckenzie)

Mandryk's said his company, Wilman Alternative Lending, had loaned Wheeler $220,000, and he bought the cemetery for an additional $230,000.

Mandryk said he found empty beer and whisky bottles and old wreaths on the grounds, as well as an unkempt lawn and some sunken graves.

He said he has no experience managing cemeteries and was trying to bring dignity to the area by cleaning up the mess left behind.

"This is new, and we're learning and, yes, we'll be making mistakes," he said. "We didn't have the time [to contact people before] trying to dig up everything — otherwise it would [have] been dirty and messy like this for another year."

Some items, like crosses and solar lights, were removed so workers could do lawn maintenance without getting hurt, Mandryk said. He said he didn't contact families beforehand because he didn't get their contact information from Wheeler.

Cindy Sutherland lost flowers and a light placed at the grave her husband, Wayne. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Cindy Sutherland, whose husband, Wayne, is buried at the cemetery, said the new owner should have taken the time to try.

"Their notice on the wall over there says that flowers are allowed and vases, yet they threw ours out. And that is really disheartening," she said.

"'Respect our cemetery' is written on the wall over there, but yet they're not having the respect for the families that are here or the people that are buried."

'It was beautiful here'

A provincial spokesperson said in an email the province's Funeral Board received calls on July 23 and July 29 with inquiries about the cemetery.

She said Manitoba's Cemeteries Act makes it illegal to destroy, deface or remove any tomb, gravestone or ornament of a gravestone in a cemetery. But she said cemeteries create their own bylaws or rules about which items, such as artificial flowers, can be placed or removed.

Carrie Mckenzie, second from right, stands with her family in the cemetery. From left: her father, Roland Mckenzie, and sons, Aiden Mckenzie and Cameron Mckenzie. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Sutherland, who lost graveside flowers and a light purchased by her son when her husband died, said she'd already purchased the plot next to her husband's for her own resting place. But now, the spot is tinged with uncertainty.

"These are just two people. What happens if they sell? Is it going to be the same way?" she said.

For Mckenzie, the place where she found comfort is now a source of heartache.

"It was beautiful here. It was colourful. It wasn't such a sad place," she said. "I felt connected to my mother when I'd come here, you know? Now, I feel bad."

Families whose loved ones are buried in a Winnipeg-area cemetery that recently changed ownership say they're heartbroken after flowers, crosses and mementoes placed at gravesites were removed without their knowledge. 3:08