Funeral Director: Caskets Crushed, Stacked in Single Grave Sites
MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE – September 4, 2018
In Memphis, Tennessee, relatives of about 1,200 dead people were affected by the cruelty and indifference of the local funeral homes accused of sending bodies to Galilee cemetery after it lost its registration in December 2010. Hundreds of families are unable to find their loved ones. As reported by USA Today, opening statements are scheduled today in Chancery Court.
Galilee Memorial Gardens, the Tennessee cemetery where caskets were crushed and stacked, remains were mishandled and bodies were lost, remains closed. But the dispute about who is to blame and who should pay for the problems at the burial ground in the Memphis suburb of Bartlett is ungoing.
Investigations revealed that Galilee’s owners, the Lambert family, misplaced hundreds of bodies, buried multiple cadavers in the same grave, crushed caskets to fit them into single plots and buried some of the died people outside cemetery grounds for years.
“That's sickening. That's totally sickening, and I can't believe it. I really can't,” said Maurice Amerson, whose mother was buried at Galillee Memorial Gardens in Bartlett.
The public has been kept out of the cemetery since it was closed and placed in state receivership in early 2014, shortly after the cemetery owner Jemar Lambert had been pleaded guilty to serve a sentence of 10 years' probation. On May 25, 2015, people were allowed to visit their relatives buried at Galilee Memorial Gardens cemetery for three hours.
But the problem turned out to be much graver. After the cemetery was closed licensed funeral homes continued to send bodies to Galilee for three years after the cemetery said its registration expired in December 2010.
The families of loved ones buried at troubled Galilee Memorial Gardens granted class-action status to their complaint against 35 funeral homes, the state Court of Appeals said in a ruling filed in March, 2017. The lawsuit claims more than a dozen Memphis-area funeral homes failed to carry out their “sacred and contractual duties” for vulnerable, mourning relatives who expected their loved ones to be interred with dignity. Galilee is also a defendant in the lawsuit.
“They turned their backs on the bodies that were entrusted to them,” plaintiff’s lawyer Kathryn Barnett said of the funeral homes. “They just walked away.”
The lawsuit seeks damages likely ranging into the millions of dollars – if the jury sides with the families.
In court filings, the funeral homes claim they did not violate customers’ contracts and did not have a contractual relationship with Galilee, arguing they had no duty to monitor Galilee’s licensure and they are not liable for the cemetery’s actions.
The Galilee case exposed a lack of regulation and state oversight of privately-owned cemeteries and funeral homes. The Federal Trade Commission enforces the “funeral rule,” which allows consumers to pick and choose only those goods and services they want or need, rather than accept a package of services that includes options they may not want.
But oversight of the death industry is largely left up to states, which typically require funeral homes and cemeteries to be licensed and establish a complaint process. Meanwhile, according to experts, states fall short of detailed oversight, such as regular on-site inspections of cemeteries.
“It’s just not something that is easy to get lawmakers or regulators to take seriously, consistently,” said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Nationally, lawsuits have been filed and charges pursued over mismanaged cemeteries, with accusations of unmarked graves, burial urns unearthed and dumped, and vaults broken to make room for more remains. Barnett, of the Morgan & Morgan law firm, says funeral homes around the country “will be watching this, because it matters.”
Today at Galilee, friends and family can rarely visit loved ones. The last time the gates of Galilee have opened to the public in 2015 visitors navigated uneven grounds, broken headstones and trash. They tiptoed among ragged plots, searching for those they had lost once, and then again.
Jackie Hughes again searched for her sister’s gravesite. She cried, holding flowers and balloons. “I can’t find my sister,” she screamed. Minutes later, she gave up, releasing the balloons toward the heavens.