In Tennessee, Mess of Bodies in Cemetery to Remain Interred and Unidentified

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.

Nina Banfield

Families Outraged by Cemetery Rules in Tennessee

Once again families are outraged by what they view as asinine cemetery policies. Jennifer Andersen frequently visits New McDonald Eastview Cemetery to pay respects to her deceased father of 13 years. When he passed Andersen and her siblings bought a bench to commemorate their father’s life. They were surprised when they recently visited the cemetery to find the bench removed and sitting outside the gates of the cemetery. Several families have complained of things being removed from gravesites at New McDonald Eastview Cemetery.

The new policy states that only flowers are allowed and must be placed in designated vases. Families are prohibited from placing objects and other decorations on the gravesites. Denise Lee, the president of New McDonald Eastview Cemetery, states, “"We put up a notice last fall that gives them 6 months so they needed to be gone by March 31st and the sign was placed out front so it would be noticed by all and we did not remove them until this week". Therefore, the families were given nearly a year’s notice of the new policy. Lee claims that the reason for the new policy is financial. The cemetery’s revenue is generated by the sale of lots and to encourage the purchase of new lots it wants to keep the graves as neat as possible.

46-2-105 of Tennessee Cemetery and Burial laws states that no person shall willfully destroy, deface, or injure any monument, tomb, gravestone, or other structure place in a cemetery. Violation of this statute is a class E felony. The question is does this statute apply to cemetery policies and if it does would the removal of certain objects and decorations fall within the scope of the statute. The article states that families sign a contract when they purchase a grave plot. It would be important for the families to read through the contract and see if they have a possible breach of contract claim.

Michael Grace

Cemetery Restrictions Limit Next of Kin’s Right of Internment

This fall, the new owners of New Gray Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee, instituted a new policy that forbids relatives from decorating the cemeteries. The new policy forbids Shepard’s hooks, figurines, or anything from being on the headstone. Even objects that sit on top of the headstone, not interfering with maintenance or grounds keeping in any way are prohibited. The owners state the reason for the policy is “to ensure a beautiful and safe environment for every family.” 

This policy raises a question about what exactly a family’s rights are in the cemetery plot it purchases. It seems natural that a business, as private cemeteries are, can create restrictions on the use of its property. But, how does the cemetery’s right to control its property balance with the next of kin’s right of internment. The next of kin’s Right of Internment is a property right attached to the burial place. However, this property right can be restricted by the cemeteries regulations for how the property can be used. Usually, the limitations on a person’s Right of Internment are attached to the deed. Here, however there is a question of whether cemeteries can change the restrictions placed upon property use after a person has already acquired the property right. This would turn on the manner in which the restrictions were placed upon the Right of Internment. If the easement or license that grants the family a property right in the land simply has a general provision that the family’s rights are restricted by the regulations of the cemetery, then it is likely that when those regulations change, the family must comply with those new changes. This highlights the unique qualities of the right of internment property right.

Kaitlin Price 

Construction is Halted in Tennessee When a "Black Cemetery" is Unearthed

For the last half century, space has become an increasingly rare commodity in this country. Commercial and residential development has sky-rocketed. Everywhere you turn, large parcels of land are being cleared out to erect the newest shopping development or residential complex. Unfortunately, contractors, land developers and zoning officials were surprised with what they found when they began excavating land for 46 single-family homes in North Chattanooga, Tennessee. 

Gary Hilbert, director of Chattanooga's Land Development Office, was force to stop construction of the homes when the grave of Bellfleet Bowood, who passed in July of 1920, was unearthed. According to genealogical records, Bowood's grave once marked the edge of Beck Knob cemetery, a cemetery for "blacks" from the late 1890's to the 1940's. Records show that nearly 90 bodies were buried in the cemetery and multiple burials in the same spot. Hilton stated that developers were aware of "an old black cemetery in the woods" but that it was not accurately depicted on the maps. However, a nearby resident states that she always knew of the cemetery's location and she could "always see three headstones." It is unclear as to why zoning and building officials were unsure about the exact location of the cemetery. 

Developers must locate all of the graves and ensure that there is no further damage before construction can resume. 46-2-107 of the Tennessee Annotated Code states that no person shall willfully destroy, deface, or injure any monument, tomb, gravestone, or other structure placed in the cemetery, or any roadway, walk, fence, or enclosure in or around the same. 46-4-104 of the Code states that if a burial ground has been neglected, abandoned, or there exist any condition or activity about or near the burial ground which the court finds renders the further use of same for purposes of aforementioned inconsistent with due and proper reverence or respect for the memory of the dead then the removal and internment of the dead shall be granted.

Michael Grace

Grieving Mother Objects to Cemetery Policy

It is common, in cemeteries across the world, for family members and friends of the deceased to decorate tombstones and gravesites with flowers, figurines and countless other items. This practice allows the loved ones to stay connected to the deceased and it also provides them with an opportunity to celebrate their life. However, one mother in Knoxville, Tennessee was shocked to discover that the mementos and figurines that had decorated her son’s gravesite had been removed. Katie Helms frequents New Gray cemetery in northwest Knoxville to see her deceased son of nine years; often times she brings her grandson, who never had the opportunity to meet his deceased uncle.

New Gray Cemetery came under new management in the previous year and with that new management came a new decoration policy. Following the current trend, the new decoration policy placed a limit on what items could be left on the gravesites. Co-owner Kim Bridges stated that the reason for the new policy is that there are currently 20,000 people buried in the cemetery. “It is important that we honor the lives of [every person buried here]”, said Bridges. “We do not allow Shepherd’s Hooks, nor do we allow figurines on the ground… to ensure a beautiful and safe environment for each family.” Title 46 of the Tennessee Statutory Code, titled Cemeteries, does not speak to decorating gravesites. This decision is left up to the discretion of the owners of each cemetery. There are some cemeteries that only allow floral decorations and they even place limits on those. However, some jurisdictions have passed laws preventing the government and cemetery owners from infringing on people’s religious freedom.

On one hand, as somebody who frequents cemeteries to visit loved ones, I understand Katie Helms’ perspective. Gravesites allow family members and friends to pay their respects and honor their deceased loved ones. These decorations show the deceased that they are not forgotten and that the ones close to them cherish their memory. However, as a professional I also understand the business necessity for keeping the gravesites clean and safe. Hopefully cemeteries and families of the deceased will be able to reach a solution that is amicable for both sides.

Michael Grace

Dealing with an Operating, Deteriorating Cemetery

What happens when a cemetery doesn’t appear to provide an appropriate place of rest for the dead or a place for visitation for the living?  Do the living have any meaningful recourse?  The history of a cemetery in Tennessee seems to suggest not.

Sunset Memorial Gardens of Cleveland, Tennessee, owned by Cecil Lawrence Inc. (“CLI”) of Georgia, has been in a state of disrepair for years.  One account describes recent conditions: “swarming gnats, water puddles and warped, bubbled flooring [in mausoleums] . . . .  Air freshners [sic] . . . ward off an overwhelming smell of decaying bodies.”  Other families complain of missing or broken headstones in the burial grounds. 

The conditions are so egregious that Ralph Buckner, Jr., a local funeral director and family member of entombed family members at the cemetery, took out full page ads in a local newspaper asking families to put their grievances in writing with the Tennessee Department of Insurance and Commerce (“ODIC”).  As of September 24, 2015, Mr. Buckner had more than 125 complaints to submit to the ODIC; another account states it may be close to 300 complaints.

Despite these and past complaints and actions, conditions at the cemetery appear to only deteriorate.  In the past 5 years, CLI has been cited and fined more than $150,000 by ODIC.  In 2009, CLI withdrew $340,000 from the Sunset Memorial Gardens improvement trust fund, funds that were deposited in CLI’s general operating account.  In August 2015, the Tenth District Attorney General sought to enforce a consent decree that required the company “to hire a mausoleum expert to make recommendations for needed repairs.”  CLI has hired a mausoleum expert, but its response has been a letter denying the poor conditions.

As of August 8, 2015, CLI appears have had its business license in Tennessee revoked. For years, family members have complained and the state has brought actions, but nothing appears to help.  If the cemetery is not brought into compliance, what else can the living do if following legal procedures are not enough?  It seems that CLI is more concerned with its well being than taking care of the dead, and the living are left with not only mourning the dead, but mourning the conditions in which the dead are supposed to rest.

Anastasia E. Fanning