The district attorney’s office is holding a community forum at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Bradley Central High School Fine Arts Building to discuss the issues at Hilcrest and Sunset cemeteries.
Tenth Judicial District Assistant District Attorney General Stephen Hatchett said the DA’s office is asking for input from signers of a petition circulated in March after Hatchett announced possible legal action.
The ADA Drew Robinson filed suit in chancery court in April against Cecil Lawrence Inc. of Dallas, Ga., the owner of Sunset Memorial Gardens and Mausoleum at 7180 North Lee Highway, and Hilcrest Memorial Gardens at 1700 South Ocoee St.
In its answers to both lawsuits filed in July, Cecil Lawrence Inc. denied all allegations and the state’s entitlement to the legal relief sought in its petition.
Petitioners claimed Cecil Lawrence Inc. failed to properly maintain the grounds and graves, according to the complaint.
The petitioners alleged the company failed to cut the grass, rake and clean cemetery plots at reasonable intervals or repair and preserve drains, water lines, roads, buildings, fences and other structures, including cemetery-owned statues.
In its response to the allegations, the company “asserts that it is currently in compliance with, has been in compliance with and intends in the future to continue to fully comply with the requirements” of Tennessee Code.
Cecil Lawrence Inc. denied and demanded proof that it has consistently failed for the past several years to maintain Hilcrest and Sunset Memorial Gardens to the standard demanded by the law.
The petitioners cited Tennessee Code that requires cemetery owners to “maintain its cemeteries so as to reflect respect for the memory of the dead in keeping with the reasonable sensibilities of survivors of those whose remains are interred in such cemeteries.”
Cecil Lawrence Inc. stated it would show that Tennessee Code requires cemetery owners to maintain cemeteries to the standard, “but only ‘[a]s to matters within its reasonable control.’”
The company’s answer stated it is “presently unable to determine from the machine reproduced copies of photographs attached to the Petition” if each picture depicts a location in Hilcrest Memorial Gardens, when the photographs were taken, where in Hilcrest Memorial Gardens they were taken, or the circumstances and conditions under which each photograph was taken.
The company demanded proof of the photos and “Cecil Lawrence Inc. denies that the photographs accurately depict the conditions of Hilcrest Memorial Gardens.”
State law requires companies selling lots, grave spaces, crypts, niches and burial rights to establish and forever maintain an improvement care trust fund for each separate cemetery.
The complaint asks the chancellor to appoint one or more lot owners or survivors as a plot-owners committee to contract for regular maintenance and order the company to pay maintenance costs.
Maintenance at Sunset Memorial Gardens and Mausoleum has been the object of complaints and news stories since March 2011 when John McGowan complained of heavy tractors used to dig new graves. He said the equipment left ruts in graves and knocked down bronze vases. Outriggers used to stabilize the backhoe cracked some of the headstones, according to past news reports.
The Lawrence Group bought Sunset and Hilcrest cemeteries during bankruptcy proceedings in about 2002.
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.
Tennessee Code states in part, “As to matters within its reasonable control, a cemetery company shall maintain its cemeteries so as 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.”
In addition, Cecil Lawrence Inc. was required by the state in March 2012 to submit to random quarterly inspections for two years and pay an assessed fee of $250 per inspection after complaints were filed about the conditions Sunset Memorial Gardens and Mausoleum.