Due to unsuccessful attempts to uncover the identities of interred bodies , the state of Tennessee has recommended that the state withdraw its oversight of a Memphis-area cemetery closed down over two years earlier.
In early 2014, a family-owned cemetery by the name of Galilee Memorial Gardens was shut down by the state after the owner was accused of losing bodies and burying multiple people in single plots. Starting in February 2014, the cemetery was placed under state receivership after the owner was charged with and plead guilty to “burying bodies on adjacent land not owned by the cemetery and stacking multiple caskets in single graves.”
As for the maintenance of the cemetery, the owner left behind disordered burial records and hundreds of unkempt graves without markers. The landscape and ground at the cemetery was left unstable; in some places the ground was so undermined that it would give way beneath the weight of a person, and in other places the ground was so thin above a grave that there was not even enough dirt in which to stick a gravesite marker. This issue, in addition to the impossibility of knowing the precise locations and identities of people buried in the cemetery, discouraged the state from placing grave markers and disinterring bodies.
Many of those who have buried relatives in the cemetery wondered if they would ever be able to find the graves of their loved ones. Based on a Nashville hearing held by Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy in August 17, 2016, efforts to do just that will most likely be halted, as she appears to favor the state’s recommendation to end state receivership.
Chancellor McCoy noted that despite efforts to identify who is buried in the cemetery, some of the cases can only be answered with “best guesses.” In addition to recommending that bodies not be disinterred for identification, the state recommended that no more burials take place, meaning that those 573 persons who have told the state they own plots for future burials (only 279 of those being complete and validated claims of ownerships) will have to find another cemetery for their relatives.
According to an Associated Press study, laws regulating cemeteries in Tennessee are inconsistent enough to cause future cemeteries to encounter issues similar to those experienced at Galilee Memorial Gardens. Title 46 of the Tennessee Code governs the law of cemeteries in the state. Section 46-1-111 of that title outlines the records-keeping process that every cemetery must maintain, which includes detailing the date of burial and the lot or grave site of every burial and recording every interment site or every interment right sold to a consumer. Not keeping these types of interment records is a misdemeanor violation under Section 46-1-101(b) of the Tennessee Code. However, nothing in that chapter of the code mandates that the Commissioner of commerce and insurance follow up with or check these records; rather, the Commissioner is merely required to review cemeteries’ annual reports to make sure that cemeteries are properly managing their clients’ trust funds and deposits for interment. In essence, it is up to concerned citizens or family members of persons already interred to notice and report any possible deficiencies with cemetery management.
This gap in Tennessee laws and regulations, as well as in the laws of other states, might allow for cemeteries and their management companies or owners to find themselves in a situation similar to that of Galilee Memorial Gardens. In order to ensure that cemeteries within Tennessee do not and cannot commit these sorts of violations in the future, the laws need to be amended in order to fill in any possible gaps.