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North Hollywood congregants worry about fate of ashes buried at church

The ashes of 17 people are buried in the rose garden at St. David's Anglican Church. But the church is in a legal battle with the Episcopal diocese over ownership of the property.

May 09, 2012|By Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times
  • The ashes of Bill Coburn's wife, Marian, are buried at St. David's Anglican Church in North Hollywood.
The ashes of Bill Coburn's wife, Marian, are buried at St. David's… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

The congregation was quiet — teary-eyed but smiling — as Bill Coburn, in a eulogy to his wife of 62 years, spoke of the passions of his beloved Marian.

Travel. Walt Disney's Dopey. Elephants, both real and miniature. Reruns of "The Golden Girls." Her church.

And roses. Marian Stanton Coburn loved roses so much she planted 65 rosebushes in the North Hollywood home where she had lived since 1930.

On a chilly, sunny Saturday last month, Bill Coburn managed a small smile as, true to her wishes, his wife's ashes were buried beneath roses in a memorial garden outside St. David's Anglican Church.

The ashes of 17 people are buried in the rose garden at St. David's in North Hollywood. But the future of the burial ground is a keenly felt uncertainty as the church continues a long-running property battle with the Episcopal Church, from which it disaffiliated years ago.

In a disagreement over the Episcopal Church's biblical interpretations and liberal views on homosexuality, St. David's — along with All Saints Church in Long Beach and St. James Church in Newport Beach — seceded from the six-county Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and the national church in 2004.

What has followed has been years of litigation over the rightful ownership of the breakaway churches' buildings and property. An Orange County Superior Court judge is expected to rule Wednesday on motions that could determine who owns the memorial garden and the churches in North Hollywood and Long Beach.

Don Eitner, like many other members at St. David's, worries most about the fate of the memorial garden and the remains of those whose ashes were buried beneath its rosebushes.

Eitner, 77, has written letters and approached bishops and the Los Angeles Diocese, seeking assurance that the remains in the burial ground will not be disturbed.

He has not received that assurance, he says.

The ashes of Eitner's mother-in-law were buried in the garden, as were those of three of his close friends. Now suffering from leukemia, Eitner hopes for his own ashes to be buried there.

"Since I'm looking more immediately at my journey toward the Lord, I want to make sure the garden is protected and preserved," he said.

The memorial garden, installed about 1996, was the idea of Father Jose Poch, the priest at St. David's, after his mother was buried on church grounds in Houston when she died in 1995. The church burial meant so much to Poch's family that he wanted to offer the same opportunity at St. David's.

"We know our loved ones are with the Lord, but we live in this body," Poch said. "I know where my mother is. I know where my father is: in Heaven. But I know where their remains are."

Poch is concerned that if the diocese wins the legal battle and sells the property, the memorial garden will be removed or paved over.

Should that happen, it would be difficult to respectfully deal with the remains because the ashes of each person have been placed directly in the ground, not in a container, Poch said.

The Los Angeles Diocese has not yet decided what will become of the property, including the memorial garden, if the court rules in its favor, said Robert Williams, a diocese spokesman.

"The Episcopal Church has centuries of experience with the respectful and appropriate treatment of human remains in accord with church traditions," Williams said.

The exodus of conservative congregations from the Episcopal Church has produced property disputes across the country.

The California Supreme Court in 2009 ruled in favor of the Los Angeles diocese in its battle against St. James in Newport Beach, stating that the property was held in trust for the diocese and national church.

Though deeds showed St. James owned its property, the congregation had agreed to be part of the national church and was bound by its rules, the court said. The Episcopal Church in 1979 adopted a rule making clear that local parishes owned their properties only as long as they remained within the larger church body.

St. James has continued its fight in the trial court in Orange County.

St. Luke's of the Mountains Church in La Crescenta, which left the Episcopal Church in 2006, also lost its battle against the Los Angeles diocese in 2009. The congregation was forced to leave its landmark stone church.

At a hearing Wednesday, an Orange County Superior Court judge is expected to rule on motions for summary judgment filed by the Episcopal Church in its cases against St. David's and All Saints.

The Episcopal Church contends that a ruling should be issued now based on the 2009 Supreme Court decision, said John Shiner, an attorney for the diocese. If the motions are granted, the cases will be over, unless the churches decide to appeal, he said.

Before Marian Stanton Coburn died, she was concerned about the garden's fate, but she told her husband she had confidence it would work out.

Now, when Bill Coburn dies — whenever that may be — the 85-year-old hopes to be buried next to his wife, beneath the roses that, by the time of her service, were in full bloom.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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