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Flagpole Caught in Another Flap--This Time as Burial Site : Interment: Ski Demski wants his ashes entombed inside patriotic shrine, but state law may bar him from his final resting spot.

April 25, 1993|RICK HOLGUIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — The request was natural for superpatriot Thomas (Ski) Demski: Upon his death, he wants to be cremated and have his ashes placed beneath the American flag, entombed in the 132-foot flagpole that rises from his front yard.

After all, the ashes of his friend and fellow patriot, Col. Clem Maloney, were interred in the pole during a public ceremony on St. Patrick's Day, 1990.

"It's something I'd like to have as my last wish," said Demski, a plump man with flowing silver hair and beard--Santa Claus without the red suit.

Demski, 63 and retired, said he decided to present his proposal to the City Council recently after he was nearly hit in the head by a heavy weight used to steady his flag. He said he wants to obtain approval now because "I wouldn't be around to fight" if some problem were to arise.

But Demski's plan for his final resting place hit a snag. City lawyers discovered that it is illegal to bury human ashes in flagpoles.

State law allows ashes to be buried in a cemetery or spread at sea. It allows them to be kept in an urn inside a house, or sealed in a religious shrine. But certainly not in a flagpole, said Jim Diaz, interim executive officer of the California Cemetery Board, which licenses cemeteries not connected with churches.

Given that, city officials say they cannot grant Demski's wish. But Assistant City Atty. Robert E. Shannon said, at least for the time being, the city does not plan to press for the removal of Maloney's ashes or to prosecute Demski for the misdemeanor violation of burying the ashes in the pole.

"Strictly speaking, it's illegal," Shannon said. But, arresting Demski would be "right up there with arresting people for spitting on the sidewalk."

Shannon said the city could take a different position if it receives complaints.

Demski did not know it was illegal to bury ashes in his flagpole, he said. He placed the urn containing Maloney's ashes through a door about four feet from the bottom of the pole, which is 18 inches in diameter at its base. He sealed the urn with concrete.

So now, Demski spends much of his time thinking about how he can make his flagpole a legal burial ground.

He has maneuvered past City Hall before. Demski clashed for years with the City Council over his 47-foot-by-82-foot American flag. Neighbors complained that the thunderous claps of the flapping flag made their lives miserable. But a judge ruled he could fly it.

On a recent afternoon, Demski talked about his latest quest in a cluttered office he shares with three parrots. (Two of the bird lover's late parrots also are interred in the pole.)

He could seek state and local permits to declare his pole a legal cemetery, Demski said. But city approval would be uncertain. And state law would require him to put $35,000 in a fund to pay for future care of the cemetery.

A yellow-and-green parrot named Blue interrupted: "Bark like a dog. Bark like a dog."

"Ruff, ruff, ruff," replied the red-blue-and-yellow parrot perched across the room.

"Oh Blue, shut up," said Demski, pressing forward with his other option.

"I'm hoping the City Council will declare it a religious shrine," he said. "I christened the pole, and I had a priest when I buried Clem's remains. I feel it's a shrine right now."

Shannon, the assistant city attorney, said he did not know exactly how a religious shrine receives its designation. But he doubted that Demski's pole would qualify.

"The Constitution gives a great deal of leeway to people to declare themselves a church or a religion, but I don't see how this pole can be declared a religious shrine," he said.

Demski showed a videotape of Maloney's burial to council members last week and plans to keep up his effort to win their support.

If the council designates his flagpole as a religious shrine, Demski could then seek a city permit to bury human ashes. Demski said he would be willing to donate the pole to the city after his death. Otherwise, he would probably will the property to a friend to maintain the pole.

Demski told the council he was sure he would succeed in his quest before his death, but he can't help but worry about his friend's remains.

"What happens to Clem? He's in an illegal cemetery," he said.

They referred Demski to the city's Planning Department to determine the legal requirements.

"We wish you well, and we wish you long life in the process," Councilman Thomas J. Clark said.

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