Sunset Memorial complaints return as litigation looms
by DAVID DAVIS, Managing Editor
Feb 05, 2013 | 3382 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Amy Andies holds her coat over her nose Monday to lessen the stench of body fluids from a leaking crypt at Sunset Gardens and Mausoleums. This is the second time in about six months that fluids have leaked from the crypts. Banner photo, DAVID DAVIS
Amy Andies holds her coat over her nose Monday to lessen the stench of body fluids from a leaking crypt at Sunset Gardens and Mausoleums. This is the second time in about six months that fluids have leaked from the crypts. Banner photo, DAVID DAVIS
Amy Andies never gave any thought about where she would be buried. She just assumed it would be at Sunset Memorial Gardens with the rest of her family. But, not anymore.

“Oh no,” she said flatly, when asked if she would buy any lots in the cemetery. “I don’t know, really (in which cemetery she would buy lots). It’s something I’ve got to look into.”

For the second time in about six months, body fluids have leaked from her grandmother’s crypt in the mausoleum.

Attorney Jim Logan said Monday he settled on an oral agreement that deficiencies would be corrected. This time, he will pursue litigation similar to the civil action taken against Fort Hill Cemetery owner Louisville Land Company.

“I’ve contacted Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett and will be giving him the necessary petitions requesting that office to engage in prosecution of the violations,” Logan said. “It took us what, seven years to get (drainage) tiles installed.”

Dale Lawrence of the Lawrence Group of Dallas, Ga., did not respond to requests for an interview left at the cemetery sales office.

Sunset Memorial Gardens, located north of Cleveland on North Lee Highway, was the subject of complaints in 2011. The complaints focused then on heavy equipment used to dig new graves. The equipment leaves ruts in graves and knocks down vases, and outriggers used to stabilize the backhoe crack headstones.

Then, in late July 2012, the crypts leaked body fluids.

“The smell is just horrendous. I think what angers me so much now is we were assured this was resolved six months ago,” Andies said. “They gave their apologies. [They said] the front of her tomb had been removed and sealed correctly; here we are six months later and clearly, it wasn’t done. Clearly, their apologies were insincere.”

Long before a large stain on the carpet can be seen, the smell is overpowering. It is a stench that clings to clothing and penetrates nostrils and sinus cavities. The noxious odor continues to assault the senses long after leaving the cemetery and leaves one feeling nauseous.

“A sickening smell. It’s just horrible,” she said. “It’s a disgrace, not only to the immediate family, but all the family members who are represented here, inside the mausoleum, the grounds throughout the cemetery. This isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last issue we’ve had with them about not keeping the grounds here.”

Ralph Buckner Jr., Ralph Buckner Funeral Home and Crematory, complained to Burial Services of the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance in July 2012. He filed the complaint after a bronze vendor emailed him photos of the three mausoleums showing leakage spilling onto the carpeted floor. The lights were burned out or broken, a single window air-conditioning unit was broken and the only ventilation came from two box fans. Also, the roof leaked, there was a broken window and the interior was generally dirty.

“Here we are again,” Andies said. “It’s very disheartening. It’s sad so much disrespect is shown to our loved ones,” she said. “When we bury them, we like to think we can visit them and have a sense of peace, and it’s anything but that.”

Logan said about 25 people have contacted his office with various complaints. He said there has been a little work to cover up some of the mold, but the mold is still there.

“We had entered into an oral agreement with the Lawrence Group,” he said. “I tried to get them to enter into a written contract. They have done some of the things they were supposed to do. They did clean what was found about six months ago. It was atrocious. It was very, very, very, very despicable.”

Logan said no ventilation system has been installed, the rear of the building where people park is still unsightly and the crypts were not sealed with plexiglass.

“The violations of those standards applicable to the operation of the mausoleum make it necessary for us to proceed (with litigation). We had high hopes that not only complaints here, but in Hilcrest Cemetery would be resolved long before now,” he said. “There are some things that have been done, but they are minor in terms of the things that need to be done.”

In September 2012, the Lawrence Group was assessed the largest ever civil penalty issued by the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance Burial Services program. Over a two-year period in 2008 and 2009, the company made at least 20 withdrawals totaling $1.77 million from the Sunset and Hilcrest cemetery perpetual trust funds. The Lawrence Group agreed to pay $267,450 from four final orders from the state. Of that amount, $114,000 was paid directly to the improvement care funds, and $151,000 was a civil penalty paid to the department. The Lawrence Group also repaid the two trusts.