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Column

Prejudice won't let them rest in peace

By ANDREW SKERRITT
Published February 16, 2007


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If you've heard the story about the homeowners and the cemetery then you should be as outraged as I was.

Residents of Istachatta in northwest Hernando County didn't want a private Bosnian cemetery in their rural neighborhood. One person objected to a Muslim cemetery where he wouldn't be able to be buried. Another person carped about crime and vandalism. Are we talking about a burial ground or a juke joint?

Instead of listening politely and admonishing the residents, the county planning and zoning commission shamefully acquiesced to the bigotry.

One commissioner worried that bodies from the green, environmentally friendly cemetery would pollute the aquifer and foul the drinking water. And she wasn't kidding. What happened to all those embalmed bodies buried in Brooksville for the past 100 years? Haven't cemeteries, like churches, schools and playgrounds, always been part of communities?

Even though the planning department staff thought the cemetery was a good idea and would fit this rural area, commissioners unanimously rejected it.

This controversy says more about the living than the dead - not that it would matter to those buried 6 feet under. But this is also an ugly pattern we've seen too often. This is from the same page as the folks in Lexington Oaks in Wesley Chapel who think their golf community is too highbrow for a Salvation Army thrift store nearby. This is another example of how deep seated prejudice shows itself in the ugliest of ways. Worse of all, this time prejudice got a government stamp of approval.

The cemetery proposal was submitted by Vedad Sokovic of the Bosnian Member Association in Clearwater. The group has been around for about five years and includes about 200 families.

Many of them - Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox - had fled the war-torn Balkans, where narrow-mindedness and hate turned to ethnic cleansing and civil war. America was supposed to be different. Brooksville isn't Bosnia, but after he heard folks referring to him, an American citizen, as a foreigner, Sokovic was convinced that his group had gone to the wrong place.

When I spoke to him a few days after the commission meeting, Sokovic seemed almost relieved that the proposal had been rejected.

"It's not a place we want to be," said the 35-year old former resident of Sarajevo. "We want a neighborhood that would welcome us."

The Bosnians are no different from the Irish, Italian, or Chinese immigrants who've come to this country. They grab all the wonderful opportunities America has to offer without discarding all their Old World traditions.

For immigrants who expect to die far from their native land, the next best thing is to be buried among friends and family. Sokovic and his group ended up looking for property in Hernando because Pasco and Pinellas are mostly built up; land farther south is scarce and expensive. Members are paying thousands for a typical funeral. Some even have to borrow money to bury their relatives.

All they wanted to do was buy a few acres for a cemetery that would have modest wooden markers. It would mean a few funerals each year. But this would be a place where they could visit, bring flowers and spend time with their peaceful dead. Ignorance shouldn't be an excuse to deny them that.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 16, 2007, 06:42:29]


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