What was supposed to be a good deed to commemorate a pair of longtime Scottsdale Symphony Orchestra benefactors has turned into a standoff over the fate of their ashes buried at a historic downtown church.
Scottsdale Symphony director Irving Fleming has known since March that Catholic Church leaders in Scottsdale have wanted an impromptu memorial site removed from the grounds of the Old Mission Church at 3817 N. Brown Ave.
But Fleming has refused to unearth the ashes and a bronze plaque honoring Alex and Bella Simons, whose cremains mysteriously appeared near the church steps a year ago.
"We have no plans, no intentions — and have agreed to none," Fleming said of removing the ashes he helped to bury in July 2002.
The Scottsdale Symphony has used the adobe mission parish as its headquarters and practice facility for 27 years, but is moving to a new location because the church has plans for restoration.
Church officials sent Fleming a letter on March 14 demanding the concertmaster remove the burial site. The letter stated he did not have permission to bury the ashes.
Written by the Rev. Thomas Hever of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the letter also stated it is against diocese policy to bury remains on parish property.
"They are still guests of the facility, and are not authorized to bury them there," said Gary Brown, Catholic Cemeteries executive director. "They have to be buried in a cemetery. I have not heard from (the symphony) one way or another."
Members of the Simons family sprinkled the cremains of Alex and Bella last year in front of the church steps, along with two numbered medallions identifying the couple’s mortuary.
Problem was, they didn’t tell the symphony.
Their names were later identified by the medallions, and Fleming officiated at a makeshift burial of the ashes. He put them in a small stainless-steel cylinder, placed it in a hole and covered it with dirt.
In March, Tempe artist Douglas Covert donated a bronze plaque celebrating the lives of the two longtime supporters of the arts. The plaque, which contains a Star of David, sits over the ashes today.
Covert said he would prefer the remains and the plaque not be disturbed. If they are, however, he said he wants to know where the plaque will have its final resting place.
Church officials sent him the same letter they wrote to Fleming.
"I’d like to see it remain there, but I don’t think that is going to happen because they are restoring the church and it wasn’t there before," Covert told the Tribune. "And no permission was ever granted."
Covert said he has been in touch with the Simons’ daughter, Donna Perline, who said she was upset over the hubbub the ashes have caused.
"She wanted it made very clear that they had left those ashes there nonchalantly, and Irv (Fleming) found them with the cemetery tags," Covert said. "And he’s the one that buried them. She was saying that this has gotten kind of out of control."
Perline could not be reached for comment.
Church officials said they were surprised that Fleming, a deacon at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, buried the ashes on church property.
"We found out about this through your newspaper article," said deacon Jim Hoyt. "We were kind of caught off-guard."
Hoy t added that the Simons’ Jewish faith has nothing to do with the church’s desire to have the ashes and plaque removed. "We’re very happy to place the cremains in our Catholic cemeteries," Hoyt said. "We have people of all denominations, and no denomination, buried in our cemeteries."
C. Robert Ernst, corporate secretary for the symphony, said he would not comment about the situation until he read the letters concerning the ashes. Ernst, however, admitted he was aware of a church letter sent to the symphony.
"I think there was one letter from the pastor, but I have not seen it," Ernst said.
The letters were made available to the symphony on Monday morning, but Ernst did not offer further comment on the issue.