October 21, 2013

"Family at war with cemetery over 6ft 7,000lb SpongeBob SquarePants headstones they had made for soldier daughter 'murdered by her boyfriend' on Valentine's Day."

The cemetery says it must "balance the needs of families who have just suffered a loss with the thousands of families who have entrusted us in the past" and offers to pay for "a solution...that will properly memorialize Kimberly, within the context of Spring Grove’s historic landscape and guidelines."

But the family is fighting for the garish cartoon sculptures. The murdered woman's sister says: "I thought it was the greatest thing in the cemetery. I even told the people there that I think this is the best monument I’ve ever seen. It’s the best headstone in the cemetery and they all agreed. It came out really nice."

Yes, SpongeBob seems inappropriate in a cemetery, but who is to say what characters belong? If statues of angels are permitted, someone might be offended by angels. We all have our different religions and religion-like beliefs and spiritual supports. Who's to deny this family the solace they find in SpongeBob?

(Other than Nickelodeon, which owns the trademark.)

48 comments:

Hagar said...

Buy a parcel of land and start your own cemetery then.

MadisonMan said...

Given that they've gone through the cost of buying an placing the stone, after getting approval, my advice to the family would be to seek complete reimbursement from the cemetery for the one-eighty. That would be for the plots purchased and for the cost of the monuments.

Then, the cemetery can also pay for removing the casket and transporting it elsewhere where the headstone can be used.

Why stay where you -- and your money -- are not wanted?

(I think the headstone is a little tacky, but a good conversation piece. I'd have no problem with it being next to my family's plot in Forest Hill)

Sigivald said...

If statues of angels are permitted, someone might be offended by angels. We all have our different religions and religion-like beliefs and spiritual supports. Who's to deny this family the solace they find in SpongeBob?

Tradition has significant informative value in this case, I expect.

Nobody "might be offended by angels" - they are or they aren't, and they know they're there or likely to be there, and can plan appropriately.

There's no expectation of random children's show characters - and if I'm expected to believe for a second that SpongeBob represents a real "spiritual belief" here, I've got a bridge to sell you.

Cemeteries aren't solely (or indeed primarily) about making the deceased's family happy no matter what; they have to deal with all the other families, too.

Respect for the dead can easily be achieved without giant cartoon tombstones, I assure them.

(At least it's not Russian mobster tombstones. But on the other hand, many of those actually approach classy when compared to a giant military SpongeBob.

And I say that as someone who likes SpongeBob. Just, you know, not as a uniformed grave marker.)

Freeman Hunt said...

Quadrilaterals and monoliths only.

n.n said...

I want a tombstone which obscures all other tombstones. Perhaps an image of SpongeBob with smaller proportions would suffice.

Ann Althouse said...

@ Sigivald

1. I agree that the monuments are intolerably awful, but I'm trying to open up the conversation on the topic of nondiscrimination agaist people with different beliefs.

2. If any characters are permitted, why are some forbidden?

3. If the standard is "taste," who decides?

4. Should tradition govern, favoring those who adhere to old beliefs?

5. Size is important, but often cemeteries have large statues of figures like angels or Jesus.

6. Children's gravestones sometimes have images of, say, teddy bears, and if there already are things like this then it's harder to make a rule forbidding SpongeBob.

7. Apparently, the family originally consulted with the cemetery, before they went through the manufacture and erection of the monuments.

8. It's almost surely trademark infringement. (I doubt if Nickoleon licensed this use, but maybe they did... for a murdered soldier.)

9. Now that the monuments are up, they're kind of a focal point that could bring people into the cemetery. Cemeteries should be visited, and not just by the family or during burial ceremonies. It's nice when the living pass through and look at the monuments and the landscapes. I've done this with cemeteries where no one I knew is buried.

10. What would the dead want? Nothing, probably, but perhaps to have children delighted.

11. This was a murder, and the family came up with an idea that was, I feel, for them, a cancellation of the bad spirit of murder around their loved one. SpongeBob represents for them the idea of her as she was when she was alive. It will be what they and everyone else sees there... instead of: murder victim.

SteveR said...

Common sense, FWIW, says the SpongeBob headstone of that size is not appropriate for a cemetery. All the less clear issues aside.

m stone said...

Althouse point #7 says it all. It was approved by the cemetery.

It is the property owners responsibility in this crazy world to set and observe longstanding standards and make them available to prospective buyers of plots.

That said, it would only apply to new cemeteries or divisions. Retroactive standards will always make someone unhappy.


Personally, I believe nothing excuses bad taste.

Herb said...

not as bad as I expected

YoungHegelian said...

If it's in the Catholic part of the cemetery it's going to have to be a statue of Saint SpongeBob SquarePants.

Mike said...

I sympathisize with the cemetery. A cemetery is a mixture of private and public space and I think it is obvious that the cemetery should have some control over what kind of stone people place for the sake of other users of the cemetery. Some obvious examples to exclude might be a large bell or light, A giant swastika, large block letters saying "gays go to hell" or "soldiers are murderers". So the question is whether a giant sponge bob is to out of place for the cemetery. Its a judgement call and obviously from the comments some people think its just fine and others do not. In that case the only reasonable thing to do is to leave it to the judgment of the people who run the cemtery and are responsible for it. The other issue is that they apparently changed their mind. People make mistakes and change their minds. It's better to bear the embarrassment of changing your mind than to do something you feel is wrong just to be consisitent. Given the circumstances they should at minimum compensate the family for the price of the stones that can no longer be used.

Abdul Abulbul Amir said...

I think that the cemetery is not really bothered by old Spongy, but rather how hard it would be to say no to anything after that.

Rocketeer said...

Before entering into the more philosophical discussion of the issues and questions that this story elicits, I just need to note that in this specific case, the cemetery had previously reviewed and approved the Spongebob headstones. It's not like the family just sprung this one them. They went through proper channels and procedures, and the cemetery simply changed its mind after the fact.

William said...

The connection of a murdered soldier with Sponge Bob Squarepants is too tenuous. While a statue of Mickey Mouse might be an appropriate marker for the grave of Walt Disney, a statue of Bugs Bunny would be jarring and wrong. I would recommend a statue of Wiley E. Coyote for all fallen soldiers of the Iraq/Afghan as a marker of how the best laid plans often go awry.

Christy said...

Do not the existing monuments when the plot is purchased matter? What if Sponge Bob goes up next to my dead husband and my future resting place? If I'm offended by angels, I don't buy a plot there. If I'm offended by a new Sponge Bob, what is my option.

If I hate the new Sponge Bob monument, how about I sue to have the cemetery provide me - and my already buried grandparents and father and my nearby sets of aunts and uncles -- with new monuments and plots that reflect the pre-existing conditions? Oops, can't find a new cemetery with hundred year old trees.

Mike said...

To elaborate on my point the cemetery could try to set standards by rules, judgment of individual people or a mix. I think that the idea of “what’s appropriate to a cemetery” is a type of knowledge that is widely shared and agreed upon, but very hard to explicitly explain. A rules based system toe evaluate “taste” would likely have to be extremely strict or extremely complex to work and people would complain anyway. A system based on the judgment of the caretakers runs the risk of being arbitrary, capricious or influenced by personal relationships. Given the circumstances I don’t think that there would be too much trouble from being arbitrary or capricious, since most people seem to have a similar idea of what’s appropriate.
1. I agree that the monuments are intolerably awful, but I'm trying to open up the conversation on the topic of nondiscrimination agaist people with different beliefs.
I agree that they are intolerable also, but clearly some people don’t. That’s why another system of deciding is needed.

2. If any characters are permitted, why are some forbidden?
I guess due to their jarring nature or making other people uncomfortable. While cemeteries serve multiple purposes, the main one is to bury and mourn the dead. Most statues I have seen relate to death, mourning or are a picture of the deceased. While people mourn in different ways, a happy smiling cartoon figure is probably disruptive to most mourners.
3. If the standard is "taste," who decides?
I assume the caretakers of the cemetery, but I suppose any other administrative or official body involved with the cemetery would be fine.
4. Should tradition govern, favoring those who adhere to old beliefs?
Cemeteries and graves are usually very old and intended to last for a long time so its certainly one of the main areas where new tastes that might last a very short time should defer at least a little to tradition. I am trying to phrase that in a way that means we should add new ideas but give a lot of consideration to tradition.

Mike said...

5. Size is important, but often cemeteries have large statues of figures like angels or Jesus.
6. Children's gravestones sometimes have images of, say, teddy bears, and if there already are things like this then it's harder to make a rule forbidding SpongeBob.
That’s why rule based systems would likely break down. Of course an image of a teddy bear on a stone is less visible than a giant statue. And they are more neutral than upbeat and cheerful. But try to imagine writing that as a rule.
7. Apparently, the family originally consulted with the cemetery, before they went through the manufacture and erection of the monuments.
So the caretakers are human and changed their mind after seeing what it actually looked like. That’s very embarrassing for them and they should certainly compensate the family, but its better than doing something you know is wrong just to be consistent.
8. It's almost surely trademark infringement. (I doubt if Nickoleon licensed this use, but maybe they did... for a murdered soldier.)
I’m sure they don’t want to touch this issue with a ten foot pole.
9. Now that the monuments are up, they're kind of a focal point that could bring people into the cemetery. Cemeteries should be visited, and not just by the family or during burial ceremonies. It's nice when the living pass through and look at the monuments and the landscapes. I've done this with cemeteries where no one I knew is buried.
They are a focal point. Even among the mere dozen commenters here there is disagreement over whether they are intolerable or attractive. Someone has to decide and there is no one else in position to do so except the people who run the cemetery.
10. What would the dead want? Nothing, probably, but perhaps to have children delighted.
As a Jew, I always learned that funerals and cemeteries were for the benefit of the living, not the dead. Otherwise, they would probably disagree just like the living disagree. Considering when at what age most people died, I would bet they would be more conservative on average.
11. This was a murder, and the family came up with an idea that was, I feel, for them, a cancellation of the bad spirit of murder around their loved one. SpongeBob represents for them the idea of her as she was when she was alive. It will be what they and everyone else sees there... instead of: murder victim.
I understand why they would want this, and that it means a lot to them. The caretakers do have to make a decision that balances how this family mourns and how other families mourn. A difficult decision.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

The thing that most creeps me out here is there being a monument for sister Kara, who's still alive and well. Think she'll still want to be remembered by SpongeBob in 50 years?

MadisonMan said...

I sympathisize with the cemetery.

You shouldn't. They okayed the monument. Then they changed their mind.

Mike said...

Yes they changed their mind. That means they are human. Have you ever changed your mind about something after seeing what it was actually like or after having some time to think about it?
In most cases when someone sells you something and then changes their mind afterwards the right thing is just to keep the original deal. In this case, the decision affects many other people for many decades to come. If they now honestly feel that the statues are intolerable they have an obligations to take them out despite their prior mistake of approving them, their huge embarrassment, and the bad press.
I agree that consistent and enforceable agreements are very important and useful. However, I can't go so far as to say that all agreements should always be 100% consistent and 100% enforced forever.

madAsHell said...

Headstones aren't cheap.
Money usually doesn't find stupid.
It's another poor investment.

John said...

So the cemetery is not spongeworthy?

Sorry. Someone had to say it. C'mon. At least some of you were thinking it. No? You know who you are.

Looking at the statue, I can see why it would be in bad taste. That statue would be in bad taste at a Six Flags theme park.

On the other hand, I don't think I would want to be buried in the same cemetery where people who could think that this was in any way appropriate were buried. Keep me as far away as possible from folks like this, dead or alive.

This is just one more reason to opt for cremation and/or burial at sea.

John Henry

Alex said...

I agree that only traditional Christian imagery should be allowed in cemeteries. Anyways didn't we have segregated religious cemeteries in the past anyways?

Viva la difference.

John said...

Two other questions not addressed in the article that I would be curious to know:

1) Did the cemetery approve that particular design or did they just say, yeah, no problem with spongebob not knowing what they were getting into. A more or less rectangular statue of Bob would have a similar silhouette to a regular tombstone. It seems to me that it is the garishness of the design rather than Spongebob per se that would be out of place.

2) Several people have mentioned the copyright issue. I too wonder about that. Do they have permission from Nickleodeon for this particular statue? Hard for me to believe they would, especially when combining the uniform's and NASCAR number.

SO what is the cemetery's liability? If no permissions, would they not be liable to Nickleodeon in the same way OfficeMax is liable if I copy copyrighted material on their machines.

And let's not forget NASCAR. They are extremely protective of their copyrights. The Jeff Gordon number might violate their copyright. Although if it is only a number with no distinctive NASCAR ID, perhaps not.

John Henry

John said...

One last comment:

Leaving bare stone is no good. What they really need to do is paint the stone with glow in the dark, flourescent yellow paint.

John Henry

Peter said...


The article raises more questions than it answers.

It says the family received "approval from a cenetery employee," but it doesn't say whether the employee had the authority to offer that approval. Perhaps issues had never arisen before (most families would just have had the symbol carved into the monument) but I'd expect this will be more of a problem in the future as the trend seems to be toward more personalized, less conventional funerals.

One does not buy a cemetery plot as one would buy a building lot; that is, one may buy a property right in a cemetery plot but one does not buy such a plot in fee simple; the cemetery retains actual ownership of the ground and can and will attach conditions on how that plot may be used.

So the family almost certainly signed a contract with the cemetery when it bought the plots, and since the lawyers representing the family had no hand in drafting that contract it probably doesn't do much to protect them.

So, it's certainly possible that the the cemetery can remove the monuments if the family refuses to do so (although I certainly don't know).

Should a cemetery limit what monuments can be placed in it? Well yes, it should- just because there are so many potentially offensive ones. Aside from the swastikas, upraised fingers, etc., what about a monument that includes a battery or solar powererd audio player that never ever shuts up- would that not be an unwelcome intrusion on other families using the cemetery?

The use of SpongeBob SquarePants is a mystery- it's hard to imagine that the owner of the character would want to see it used this way but equally hard to imagine that a maker of the monuments wouldn't know enough to refuse using trademarked or copyrighted characters without permission. The news article is, of course, totally unenlightening.

JHapp said...

Headstones celebrating birth control pills or gay marriage are next.

Carl said...

So now even cemetaries have an HOA? Oy.

Richard Dolan said...

"I'm trying to open up the conversation on the topic of nondiscrimination agaist people with different beliefs."

So, who supposedly 'believes' in SpongeBob? It's just a cartoon, and a poor candidate to start a 'converstation' about nondiscrmiination that doesn't weigh the scales heavily in favor of discrimination.

"If the standard is 'taste,' who decides?"

The same people who always decide such things, the owners of the property where the monument is proposed to be located. The cemetery sounds like a private affair, but even if it is gov't owned, the gov't gets to decide (meaning whoever is the reigning bureaucrat). That usually results in boring, standard-issue stuff, but even that would be better than SpongeBob.

There was an incident in NYC a few years ago, when Tilted Arc still graced the plaza in front of the federal building downtown. The sculpture, a Richard Serra piece, had a better claim to impose itself on adult society than this ridiculous 'memorial', in that it was a site-specific piece that had been commissioned by the GSA. But it had the unfortunate effect of turning the plaze into an impenetrable cul-de-sac. It was removed after a long, public battle, pitting the Manhattan art groupies against those who worked in the building and had to confront the Arc on a daily basis. After the sculpture's removal, that plaza reverted to an ugly (but not impassable) wasteland, which it pretty much remains today.

That was, in its little way, a triumph of common sense. It's too bad that soldier's family may end up having their feelings (and expectations) hurt, just as Serra and the art groupies suffered a similar rebuff. But there is no way any sensible manager of the cemetery could permit such an absurd memorial to become a permanent fixture.

I realize it may be heresy of a high order on this blog to say so, but there are times where boring is truly the better course. This is one of them.

Richard Dolan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Freeman Hunt said...

"Can we have a headstone with Spongebob on it?"
"Sure."

....
Family trucks in SIX FOOT Spongebob. "What do you think?"
"Uh.....Little different than what we had imagined."
"You are so cruel!"

EMD said...

First World Problemz.

MadisonMan said...

Uh.....Little different than what we had imagined.

So the Cemetery didn't say with clarity what they expected.

The cemetery and its employee is at fault here.

When I planted the tree at the family plot, Forest Hill (here in Madison) had all sorts of questions, and stipulations, about what/where to plant. If they had agreed that I could plant a tree, and said nothing else, and then came back and complained when I planted a Flowering Pear tree, my reply would be: Here's the tree I want, feel free to replace the Pear. It shouldn't be asking too much to expect clarity from a bureaucracy.

(As it turns out, the Chestnut tree I planted died).

Marshal said...

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...
The thing that most creeps me out here is there being a monument for sister Kara, who's still alive and well.


Absolutely, what's with that?

EMD said...

Absolutely, what's with that?

Duh. 2 for 1 deal.

John said...

Re the monument maker knowing not to use a trademark:

I believe that a lot (most?) of monuments are being carved in Chine these days.

I doubt the Chinese monument maker pays much attention to trademarks and copyrights.

John Henry

MadisonMan said...

2 for 1 deal.

Exactly.

When Mom died, we had Dad's stone marker done/carved too. It was a savings -- couple hundred, as I recall.

All that needs to be done when the time comes is to fill in the year.

Edgehopper said...

I'd leave out the IP issue here--it's not trademark infringement, and it's fair use as to copyright. Under a traditional likelihood of confusion theory, trademarks only attach to a market where the owner sells products with the mark. Unless Nickelodeon or its parent company do a brisk business in Spongebob tombstones I'm not aware of, they don't have a Spongebob trademark for gravestones. Since Spongebob is famous they could go for a dilution theory, but that's not likely to succeed against a single use of the mark in a cemetery that will be obscure as soon as the news story dies down.

As to copyright, it's likely fair use. Noncommercial, one off statues to be used as memorials aren't a traditional category of fair use, but the standard elements of fair use weigh pretty strongly in favor of the family (no effect on value of the art, no profit to the family and little to the monument carver, nothing remotely commercial about it).

More generally, I can't imagine a jury that would find a grieving family liable for copyright infringement in a case like this, or a media company boneheaded enough to try. Hell, Nickelodeon doesn't even police its trademark as to creepy guys in Spongebob costumes in Times Square, so why would they bother with this?

lemondog said...

Yes, SpongeBob seems inappropriate in a cemetery, but who is to say what characters belong?

SB is a bit too worldly, faddish, frivolous and obviously, without religious significance. Perhaps there was something of a more exalted nature she enjoyed. On the other hand there doesn’t seems to be a dearth of unusual, unique, funny, offensive, creepy and irritating headstones e.g., motorcycles, fish, nudes, giant clothespin, scrabble, Yoda, Snoopy and the Worlds Greatest Electrician.

Freeman Hunt said...

What if someone had a hated relative buried and installed a memorial of a menacing devil poking ferociously at the head of the grave with a trident?

Freeman Hunt said...

MM, I agree that it's the cemetery's fault for not clarifying, but it's still funny to imagine how easily that might have happened. I think that reimbursement for the plot or the stone is in order.

jimbino said...

The bigger question is why do superstitious and religious folks who value embalming, caskets, cemeteries and funerals get special treatment paid for by the non-superstitious and atheistic who actually make use of the "ashes to ashes" idea?

traditionalguy said...

Perhaps a compromise is best. Cut the monuments in half. when no one is happy, the system has done its best work.

Cedarford said...

Edgehopper said...
I'd leave out the IP issue here--it's not trademark infringement, and it's fair use as to copyright. Under a traditional likelihood of confusion theory, trademarks only attach to a market where the owner sells products with the mark. Unless Nickelodeon or its parent company do a brisk business in Spongebob tombstones I'm not aware of, they don't have a Spongebob trademark for gravestones

===============
You are missing the point. It is not copyright, it is trademark for Brand. And any hurting of the brand by dilution, association with trade that could hurt the brand owner or usurp revenue without fair payment typically generates a winning tort. It media brand /corporate brand rights are very,, very broad!!

Why you cant sell cookies branded as "Batman!" for you non-profit fundraiser, even if "Batman!" in not in the cookie business.

And why AR-15 rifles with a crabapple logo looking almost identical to Apple goods would not be allowed to be sold. Even if Apple is not in the gun business..



Cedarford said...

Recently, Arlington cemetery did a full sweep of the junk, kitsch, photos teddies, holy stones food remenants and attendent rat nests and droppings at Area 60. After warning the entitled Victims Families of the Fallen Heros that it was coming.

Joe said...

Anyone who spends $26,000 on a tombstone has too much money.

Largo said...

"""
So the cemetery is not spongeworthy?

Sorry. Someone had to say it. C'mon. At least some of you were thinking it. No? You know who you are.
"""

I was not thinking about it. I should have been thinking about it! Why was I not thinking about it? I must be getting old.,,

RonF said...

"Who's to deny this family the solace they find in SpongeBob?"

How about the people who own the cemetery?