Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance communications director Christopher Garrett said Burial Services staffers at the department received a complaint by facsimile Monday morning from Ralph Buckner Funeral Home and Crematory. A regulatory board field representative was on site the following morning at 8 to inspect the mausoleums.
Buckner complained of “body fluids on the floor and unbearable odors in the mausoleum. My parents and my daughter are in this mausoleum. I am distraught to say the least. This is a potential Noble, Ga.”
Noble, Ga., refers to the Tri-State Crematory where more than 300 bodies were consigned to the crematorium for proper disposal but dumped instead on the crematorium’s site.
Buckner said he filed the complaint after a bronze vendor emailed him photos of the three mausoleums more than a week ago. On Monday, he said the leakage was still spilling onto the carpeted floor. He said lights were out, a single window air-conditioning unit was broken and the only ventilation came from two box fans, the roof leaked, there was a broken window and the interior was generally dirty.
“I hope we can get it cleaned up, that’s all I want. I just want us to have a cemetery in town we can be proud of and one we can walk into without becoming nauseous,” Buckner said. “Sooner or later, there are probably going to be more of these. The thing is just in total disrepair.
“I’m losing sleep because my daughter and parents are up there, and I wonder what condition they are in. Even though they are in some of the best caskets made, with bronze sealers in them, I don’t know what condition they are in,” he said. “There’s no telling what’s happening to others who might not be in as good caskets.”
Garrett said field representative Roy Bozeman called Burial Services and verbally reported what “appeared to be body fluids containing unknown chemicals leaking from a crypt and running onto the floor of the mausoleum. The field representative stated in his professional opinion that the leakage in the public areas of the mausoleum caused a public health and safety issue at the mausoleum.”
He added, “After discussion with our legal counsel, Burial Services asked the field representative to make a suggestion to Suzanne Baskette, the cemetery manager, that the cemetery secure the mausoleum to prevent unauthorized entry until the public health and safety risk could be rectified by their company.”
Garrett said Burial Services received a plan of action late Tuesday from Cecil Lawrence Inc., [doing business as] The Lawrence Group, Dallas, Ga., the parent owner of the cemetery. The plan of action was deemed sufficient to address the immediate concerns.
Cecil Lawrence, president of Cecil Lawrence Inc., wrote in his response to the findings that the “reason for the leak was the crypt was sealed with plywood; the plywood disintegrated and caused the crypt to leak. It should be noted that the crypt was sealed before Cecil Lawrence Inc. took over operations. The crypt was sealed on July 28, 1987.”
The company bought Sunset and Hilcrest cemeteries during bankruptcy proceedings around 2002.
Dale Lawrence, The Lawrence Group, did not return an attempt to contact the company on Wednesday.
Buckner said he has received hundreds of complaints about the two cemeteries for probably 15 years.
“I guess I was just fed up with it when I saw the fluid. I kind of ignored the odor for the last two or three years the best I could and didn’t go up there much in the summertime. I just got fed up with it the other day,” Buckner said.
Lawrence said the leaking crypt in the main mausoleum was sealed with acrylic glass on Tuesday.
“Cecil Lawrence Inc., has fixed the air conditioning, lights, carpet, roof, the missing crypt covers and the holes in the back wall as of today (Tuesday).” In the new mausoleum, Lawrence said the broken window will be replaced and the lift properly stored by Aug. 1.
Buckner’s attorney, James Logan, said the complaint does not address poor maintenance conditions raised by many people for a number of years. He is prepared to file an action in Bradley County Chancery Court if the maintenance does not improve.
“Our sole purpose is to reach an agreement of compliance with the standards applicable to the maintenance of cemetery facilities,” he said. “We are trying to reach a written agreement without the necessity of this being delayed by litigation.”
In a matter concerning the general care of the cemetery, Garrett said Loye Hamilton complained to Burial Services in late June that the grounds have deteriorated dramatically. “The conditions have become a disgrace to the memory of those who have been laid to rest,” Hamilton wrote in the complaint. “Many graves remain unsown for long periods of time after burial, the concrete drainage ditches are broken with some exposing bare wires. … At the very least, they should use topsoil on top of the graves so grass will grow.
“All of the problems are strictly caused by inattention and poor management by the owner. I will be more than willing to file a formal complaint and/or lawsuit in order to get these problems corrected and to ensure this kind of neglect does not happen again in the future. After all, this is a perpetual care cemetery where funds are supposed to be deposited in order to fund the ongoing maintenance.”
These are the latest complaints of Hilcrest and Sunset Garden. John McGowan filed a complaint in February 2011 asking the district attorney’s office to look into the condition of the county’s two largest cemeteries.
In response to McGowan’s complaint, Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett wrote a letter to the Lawrence Group dated Feb. 17, 2011, in which he described conditions he observed at the two cemeteries the day before he wrote the letter.
“There were tire tracks over several graves and it appeared that some of the headstones had been moved as a result of the vehicle or vehicles driving over the graves. There were also several headstones that were broken as well as several headstones that were sunken into the ground,” he stated.
McGowan said maintenance workers dug graves using a full-size tractor and placed the feet of the outriggers on headstones. One of the damaged headstones marked the grave of his son.
Dale Lawrence of the Lawrence Group issued a statement then that, “The issue is resolved; therefore, I have no comment to make.”
According to Tennessee Code, cemetery companies are to maintain cemeteries to reflect respect for the memory of the dead in keeping with the reasonable sensibilities of survivors of those whose remains are interred in the cemeteries. The officers and directors of a cemetery company commit a Class E felony if they fail to set up and maintain the improvement care trust fund.
Cemetery maintenance in the city and county have been an issue for several years. Conditions at Fort Hill Cemetery became a concern to city and county officials after Betty Saint Rogers purchased a lot in 2001 for her son, Scotty Shane Rogers.
Tenth Judicial District Attorney Jerry Estes’ office filed suit in May 2004 asking Joe V. Williams, who owns a portion of Fort Hill through Louisville Land Co., to pay for cleanup efforts at the historic graveyard a short distance north of Hilcrest.
The DA’s action came shortly after attorney James F. Logan filed a separate lawsuit on April 27, 2004, on behalf of Rogers and “others similarly situated.” Chancery Court Judge Jerri Bryant issued an order on March 30, 2010, against “Louisville Land Company and its alter ego, Mr. Joe V. Williams” to pay $250,000 in punitive damages and attorney fees of $37,000. In addition, the chancellor awarded Rogers $45,000 in compensatory damages.
Bryant’s ruling was reversed on appeal.
Cecil Lawrence said in a written response to Hamilton’s complaint, “that the company is in full compliance with the law, which is stated below: ‘Improvement care’ means the continual maintenance of the cemetery grounds and graves in keeping with a properly maintained cemetery, including rotting of grass, raking and cleaning of cemetery plots at reasonable intervals, and pruning of shrubs and trees; memorial care of commodities; procuring, maintaining and keeping in workable condition the machinery, tools and equipment needed for the shop and replacing the machinery, tools and equipment when necessary; keeping in repair and preserving the drains, water lines, roads, buildings, fences and other structures, including cemetery-owned statues and embellishments of general character applicable to the cemetery as a whole or a particular area; and paying of Insurance premiums and maintaining necessary records of lot ownership, burials and other necessary information and making the records available to public authorities and interested persons.”
He said the company distributes all of the perpetual care trust fund earnings for cemetery maintenance. “Also, funding earnings is far less than the cost of the maintenance for the cemetery.”
Buckner said he realizes the crypts contain only the remains of deceased loved ones, and, he has to tell other families the same thing he tells himself.
“Hopefully they are in a better place and I trust they are, but still, I want to be able to have a place to go and visit them and cry,” he said. “Parents are one thing … but a daughter is another.”