Tenth Judicial District Assistant District Attorneys Stephen Hatchett and Drew Robinson called the meeting to gain public input as they try to settle a civil lawsuit filed 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.
Lambert said she has had to do the hardest thing a parent can do: bury her son, Mark.
“I chose to put my son in the best place that I thought he could possibly be in this county, and that was Sunset Memorial Gardens’ main chapel of the mausoleum,” she said.
“The only peace I have ever gotten in all those years that it has been, is to be able to go there to his crypt inside the mausoleum. There is nothing worse than to step up to the door, where you want to go to spend time and have some peace and quiet with your child, to open that door and immediately want to vomit.
“We can’t even go and visit because the odor is so — it’s rotting flesh.”
Hatchett asked Lambert if the odor had been eliminated within the last month.
“No,” she said. “You can go up there and it depends on how many air fresheners they’ve set out.”
Hatchett said he and Robinson visited Sunset Memorial Gardens about a month ago and were told by the company that conditions would improve.
“I went up there and you are absolutely right. There were air fresheners everywhere,” he said. “You and I know air fresheners don’t fix the problem — so it is not fixed?”
Lambert said the loss of peaceful moments with her son “all goes back to fact that proper maintenance has not been done for years.”
Hatchett and Robinson listened and asked questions as about 50 people despaired over conditions at the cemetery.
“It would be another thing if they would at least show a little bit of remorse,” Lambert said.
Debra Miller said, “I was told I just didn’t understand the cemetery business. I told him he didn’t understand compassion.”
Robinson said mausoleum conditions were the primary complaint to the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance.
The Tennessee Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers released consent decrees in March that required Sunset Memorial Gardens to submit to random quarterly inspections for two years. The cemetery will pay a fee of $250 for each inspection.
According to the consent decree, the owners of the cemetery failed to maintain the cemetery and mausoleum, “so as to reflect respect for the memory of the dead in keeping with the reasonable sensibilities of survivors.”
“We have a consent decree. They come in and monitor and inspect that (mausoleum). They are supposed to do that quarterly through 2014. They say they’ve been doing that and they say they haven’t cited them again,” Robinson said. “Maybe it’s somebody in the Department of Commerce and Insurance who needs to come back around and field some of those complaints about the mausoleum.”
Robinson said that in addition to complaints about the cemetery, the DA’s office has received complaints of juveniles partying in the mausoleum. That, he said, is an issue in and of itself.
Hatchett said he and Robinson have discussed resolving the civil suit filed in April in Chancery Court. He showed the audience a complaint form and asked for their input.
“One of the main complaints we’re getting is the Lawrence Group does not respond to complaints — at all,” he said. “Or, if you complain enough, they’ll do something to get rid of you.”
Robinson said he wants to be able to call the company three months after a complaint is filed and find out how it was handled. They will have to keep records of when a complaint is filed and of their response.
“If not, then we’ll be back before the chancellor,” he said.
He asked for everyone’s contact information because there will be a hearing in front of Chancellor Jerri Bryant and most — if not everyone in attendance said they would testify.
“What we are hoping to do is put down a consent order with the Lawrence Group that addresses global concerns, not just individually, but as a whole. This cemetery needs to be mowed. This cemetery needs to not have cracked headstones. This cemetery needs to be kept up. This mausoleum needs to be fixed in both of these cemeteries,” he said.
Christy Reece said her grandmother’s crypt at Sunset Memorial Gardens leaked in 2012 and led to complaints to the state.
“That has given me so many nightmares,” she said.
Reece’s father is buried in the cemetery along with several other family members and friends. Her father’s grave has sunk about a foot. She asked, “How do I know if his grave is properly sealed? I have nightmares wondering if his body fluids are leaking or if he has bugs and worms in his grave and I can’t get anyone to respond to me.”
Hatchett said the bottom line is, “if they don’t comply with the terms of a consent order, then you call us and we’ll deal with it.”