Grieving mom defends decorating son’s grave with plastic skeleton for Halloween

Cole Wohle's grave is at the center of a dispute between his mom and a New Hampshire cemetery. (Photo: Courtesy of Christina Wohle)

A grieving mother is at odds with officials at her local cemetery after she placed a plastic skeleton on her late son’s grave in what she considered to be a lighthearted nod to Halloween. Cemetery officials disagreed, and have repeatedly removed the display, which the bereaved woman calls a “gesture” that is “really meant to bring a laugh and a spot of happiness into something that has been so sad.”

Christina Wohle of Francestown, N.H., lost her son Cole — a Little League coach, volunteer firefighter and rodeo enthusiast she describes as a “larger than life” cowboy who was a “pillar in the community” — in July 2016, just days after he turned 18. The young man had a fatal heart attack shortly after competing in a rodeo event.

Since her son’s untimely death, Wohle tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she’s committed herself to keeping his gravesite tidy and decorating it for holidays like Easter and Christmas. Last Halloween, she paid homage to Cole’s love of the Tim Burton film The Nightmare Before Christmas by designing a wreath inspired by the animated movie and placing it on his headstone, alongside a Jack Skellington head. At Christmas, she set up a tree with solar-powered lights.

But this year’s Halloween decoration has run afoul of the cemetery commission, and some critics who have deemed it a “horror show.” The display consists of a plastic skeleton stretching out alongside Cole’s plot, a cowboy hat from the local feed store jauntily resting on the skull.

“It’s a smiling skeleton, it’s not something meant to scare anyone,” says Wohle, who purchased the set-up from a craft store with her younger son. “It has a big ol’ smile on it.”

Christina Wohle placed the skeleton in front of her son's grave; only the skull remains. (Photo: Christina Wohle)

Wohle says the skeleton felt in line with Cole’s sense of humor and love of Halloween; what’s more, she thought it would be a treat of sorts for the friends who she says frequently visit his grave, leaving stones, coins and trinkets of their own.

After consulting her younger son — who she said mused, “Some people might think you’re crazy, but you’re a harmless crazy, Mom, so I think it’s OK” — Wohle set up the skull and bony arms and legs. She took a photo and posted it on Facebook for his friends to see, adding the caption: “Hey, Cole popped up to see y’all.”

She tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she received “such good responses from people,” from a fellow bereaved mom who found it funny, to friends vowing to visit it in person, to her therapist mother-in-law, who congratulated her on finding a “healthy way to grieve.”

“As horribly sad and tragic this is to lose a child — just to lose a loved one in general — there was just this moment [in which] he was still bringing some happiness to people,” she says of the initial reaction.

But the committee overseeing the cemetery — which has not yet responded to Yahoo’s request for comment — wasn’t so charmed. The skeleton was removed repeatedly, and, in at least one instance, thrown in the trash. Each time, Wohle restored the skeleton, though only the skull and cowboy hat are currently in place.

In an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader, Polly Freese, the commission’s chairperson, explained that the plastic skeleton bones were blocking the landscapers who move the area each week. Freese also defended the commission’s right to ban items they deem inappropriate, including paper sky lanterns the Wohle family had lit and let loose from the gravesite in 2017, on the first anniversary of Cole’s death.

“It’s really frustrating because you’re dealing with emotion on the one side, and with the law on the other, and we’re coming across as the bad guys,” Freese told the paper.

But Wohle says the commission has never contacted her to address the issue directly, and has accused the group of “hypocrisy” by targeting her skeleton decoration, which she says the cemetery rules and regulations don’t “specifically prohibit.” She says officials “pick and choose which one of their regulations they want to enforce,” citing the presence of silk flowers, stones and ceramic and glass jars, which are officially forbidden but continue to populate gravesites.

Wohle, who has formally complained to the town administrator, also disputes the commission’s claim about maintenance. She says the cemetery is infrequently mowed — just three times over the summer — and is “absolutely inundated” with leaves, which she hopes will be cleared out before visitors arrive to pay their respects on Veteran’s Day. She also says Cole’s grave is in a low-trafficked part of the cemetery, with mostly reserved family plots, and that there’s “no grass there for landscaping to be done.” The skeleton, she says, shouldn’t be obstructing any grounds crew.

Wohle’s battle of wills against the cemetery has also invited public criticism of her Halloween tribute, a backlash she wasn’t expecting. She tells Yahoo Lifestyle that if friends and family had reacted negatively to the skeleton in the first place, she’d have taken it down.

“It was never meant to offend anyone,” she says. “Like, I heard someone say, ‘that’s just a horror show.’ A lot of us have spent three years with a lot of tears, and just to convey a simple little smile and laughter... that’s it. It was just a quick laugh. It’s kind of blown up and gotten crazy and it was never meant to.”

She also resents accusations that she’s not being respectful to the other families with loved ones buried in the cemetery, noting her regular efforts to water flowers, pick up litter and tend to other plots.

Ultimately, she stands by her decision to add some levity to her son’s final resting place, reflecting, “I don’t believe a cemetery is just some place that you have to go and cry, because if you go see your loved one and just cry all the time, that’s pretty devastating.”

And cemetery officials, she says, can expect her to come back with more displays devoted to her much-missed son.

“Oh, I will keep decorating,” she says. “If you think about, as your children grow, they get a home of their own and they get to decorate for every holiday. That is my son’s home. We were planning on building him a house on our farm here and we no longer can do that.

“That is the house that is built for Cole, in his beautiful stone. And I will maintain and keep his landscape beautiful until the day I am put in next to him.”

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