Complaints from several Cleveland-area families regarding upkeep at a local cemetery have resulted in potential legal action.
Upset relatives have been posting photos of overgrown grass and damaged grave markers on social media, prompting the latest legal troubles for Sunset Memorial Gardens, which is located on North Lee Highway.
Thelma Rippetoe, whose husband Ovie, also known as “Butch,” told the Cleveland Daily Banner her husband was buried there in January.
Just recently, Rippetoe and her daughter, Kristi Johnson, had to visit his final resting place to pull weeds and trim overgrown grass from around their loved one’s headstone.
She said the entire property was in the same condition.
“It’s terrible the way it looks,” Rippetoe said. “Every grave is covered.”
Johnson said the weeds were up to their knees.
"It’s disrespectful to all the families,” she said.
Calls to the cemetery office have been unreturned, she said.
While large portions of the grounds are not mowed, other sections of the site have been cut in recent days.
The Banner left a message with the cemetery’s owner, Cecil Lawrence Inc., located in Dallas, Ga., as well as called the local cemetery office. The local cemetery office did not have a voice mail.
The calls were not returned as of press time Saturday night.
It is not the first time the beleaguered cemetery has been embroiled in controversy. In 2013, it was shut down by the state when bodily fluids were discovered leaking from crypts located inside a mausoleum.
The cemetery has also been fined several times by the state for failing to maintain its grounds.
Previous complaints, as listed in past editions of the Banner, have alleged that Cecil Lawrence Inc., failed to properly maintain the grounds and graves. The complaints argued 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.”
Jan Jarvis said the cemetery placed a grave marker on her daughter’s grave only after she threatened not to leave the cemetery office until it was done.
Jarvis’ daughter, Rhonda Jarvis, died in January 2019.
Although the funeral home told Jarvis the marker had been at the cemetery for several months, it wasn’t placed on the grave until August, when she had to resort to desperate measures.
“I told them I wasn’t leaving until they got it done,” Jarvis said she told cemetery office workers.
Jarvis also said the cemetery never sowed grass on her daughter’s plot. The owner of Sunset, Cecil Lawrence, told her he would ensure the grave plot was sodded.
The results were disappointing, Jarvis noted.
“But they just used grass and soil from another grave that had been recently dug,” she said. “It didn’t take root and died.”
Finally Jarvis said she had to take matters into her own hands.
“I planted grass and friends took turns watering it,” she said.
She noted that problems at the cemetery have been taking place for years and that it was time for the owners to address those issues.
“I just want them to do what’s right,” she said.
James F. Logan Jr., a Cleveland attorney, said he is representing three families who are upset about the maintenance problems at the cemetery.
“It’s been a constant issue,” Logan said. “There is a potential for litigation.”
Logan said many cemeteries are facing financial challenges due to low returns on escrow accounts.
When cemeteries sell plots, a portion of the revenue is placed in escrow to ensure monies are there for maintenance and other costs.
However, with low rates preventing those monies to grow, cemeteries are facing difficulties in covering expenses.
“The escrow accounts do not generate enough revenue,” Logan said. “Costs have increased, and since the 1990s, the return on escrow accounts has been almost zero.”
Rather than spend money on legal wrangliings, Logan said everyone should seek a resolution. In addition, cemeteries must find ways to reduce costs.
“One way would be to plant substitute grasses, such as Bermuda grass, which does not grow high and also goes dormant in winter,” he said.