Tri-City man who died in 2004 finally gets grave marker

By Loretto J. Hulse, Tri-City HeraldApril 1, 2013 

Thanks to the generosity of a stranger and a friend, the graves of two members of the Montelongo family will be marked with bronze plaques.

Abe Montelongo was laid to rest eight years ago at Desert Lawn Memorial Park in Kennewick. But unless you know where to look you won't be able to find his grave on your own -- it's unmarked.

Abe Montelongo's sister, Ester Ortega of Pasco, said when he died in his sleep in 2004 "the whole family got together and did what they could. We're a big family but there just wasn't enough in the budget for a marker."

A flat bronze marker like those allowed at Desert Lawn can run $600 and more.

On April 8, through the efforts of Dianne Trenidad, 51, owner of Shop & Drop Thrift Shop in Kennewick, he'll get his marker.

Trenidad knows the family but didn't realize Abe Montelongo's grave was unmarked when she opened her shop in November 2012. She sells used items and uses a portion of the profits to buy grave markers for deceased Tri-City residents.

"We all need to be remembered. We all made this country what it is, no matter how small a part we played, and our contributions need to be remembered," she said.

Montelongo's daughter, San Juanita Montelongo, a victim of domestic violence, also laid in an unmarked grave after her death in March 2002. In 2004 an anonymous donor contributed $1,000 to the family, which they used to buy a plaque. She is buried just 20 yards away from her father.

The idea for Trenidad's grave marker project came to her a few years ago while visiting a cemetery with her children.

"We used to go and do the math to figure ages and wonder what they were like, what they did," she said.

One day, while looking at a faded artificial flower -- all that marked where someone was buried -- a thought came to her.

"God told me to raise money for headstones," she said.

Bringing closure to the lives of others is one way for Trenidad to give back to the community, which helped her beat some bad choices she made in life, including drug addiction, she said.

"My parents were addicts. My mother killed herself in front of me when I was 10 years old. I missed a lot of life because of drugs," she said.

She beat her addiction with help from counselors and medical personnel with Family & Offenders Sentencing Alternative, a state program enacted in 2010 for nonviolent offenders who have minor children. Trenidad was one of the first to enter and says she has been drug-free for more than two years.

"It changed my life," she said.

'It's the finality'

Unmarked graves aren't unusual. The older the cemetery, the more common they are, said Amy Mueller Coffman, who runs the office at Desert Lawn Memorial Park.

"They go unmarked for a variety of reasons. For some families, it's financial, for others, it's emotional. Some people wait months or years to do anything about a marker. It's the finality, it's the last thing they do for the deceased. It's like saying, they're really gone now," Coffman said.

Finding an unmarked modern grave is relatively easy. The cemeteries keep maps and meticulous records.

"Typically we can look in our records, find they're next to so-and-so and count over," Coffman said.

Even with 10,602 coffins and cremation urns already buried at Desert Lawn, Coffman said, "we know exactly where Abe Montelongo is buried."

Ortega said her brother was a hard worker who raised his seven children by himself.

"He worked at Goodwill Industries, at a lot of warehouses and for Burlington Northern for a while. He'd do anything to support his kids," Ortega said. "At the end of his life, he was disabled."

Ortega said the Montelongo family is overwhelmed by what Trenidad is doing for them.

Even though the shop has yet to make a profit, Trenidad has gone ahead and arranged to buy a marker. She's also been able to get a limousine donated to drive the family to the cemetery -- almost 10 members will attend the 11 a.m. ceremony April 8.

"And there may be more attending, depending on who can get off work," Ortega said.

Arlene's Flowers in Richland agreed to donate a floral arrangement and Blaze Titus, owner of Hillcrest Memorial Center in Kennewick and Hillcrest Bruce Lee Memorial Center in Pasco, sold Trenidad the bronze-and-granite marker at cost. Desert Lawn, owned by the Mueller family, is waiving the fee to have the marker installed.

One of Abe Montelongo's brothers, Albert, a minister, will officiate.

"She's gone way out of her way. It's hard to believe she's doing so much for us," Ortega said.

'I got goosebumps'

Trenidad didn't plan on making Abe Montelongo's grave marker her first project. It was simply serendipity that sent his niece, Angie Montelongo of Pasco, into her shop shortly after it opened. Trenidad explained her shop's purpose and the young woman said, "Abe needs one."

"Well, there's not that many people named Abe in the Tri-Cities, so I asked Abe who? When she said, 'Abe Montelongo,' I got goosebumps. He and I used to work at Goodwill together many years ago," Trenidad said. "He was a good guy."

His was the first name to go on her list, which has since grown by several names.

To help defray costs, Trenidad will gladly accept donations of cash or goods to sell in her shop.

Shop & Drop Thrift Shop is at 3180 W. Clearwater Ave. in Kennewick. But don't look for it along the street. You'll find it in the L-shaped strip mall behind Sterling's Famous Steak, Seafood and Salad Bar.

The shop is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; phone, 396-7398.

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