published Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

Residents lament conditions at Cleveland, Tenn., cemeteries

The back side of a mausoleum is seen at the Sunset Memorial Gardens on Monday.
The back side of a mausoleum is seen at the Sunset Memorial Gardens on Monday.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Patricia Daugherty visited Sunset Memorial Gardens about six months ago, and she didn't like what she saw.

She and her husband, Robert, own a pair of plots at the mausoleum, and on this day Daugherty brought some friends who were interested in making a similar purchase. But inside, Daugherty said, she found a deteriorated building.

She said she saw broken glass, dead birds and a carpet soiled with mud and animal droppings. And then there was the stench. Standing inside felt unbearable, she said, her senses overcome with the smell of something rotting.

Last week, Daugherty was one of about 50 Cleveland residents to attend a public forum about Sunset Memorial Gardens and Hilcrest Memorial Gardens, both owned by Cecil Lawrence Inc. in Dallas, Ga.

The district attorney's office hosted the forum to gauge how the community felt about the mausoleums and graveyards, and to see how many people would share their stories should prosecutors bring the company before Chancellor Jerri Bryant.

In April, the district attorney's office filed a petition in Bradley County Chancery Court to enforce cemetery maintenance. Citing 40 signatures from angry residents, the petition stated that Sunset Memorial Gardens is rundown and that the lack of maintenance is against the law.

Grass needed to be cut, according to the petition. Leaves needed to be raked. Drains, water lines, roads, buildings and fences needed to be preserved.

In the petition, the district attorney's office asked that the court establish a plot-owners committee, comprising people who own some piece of the graveyard. This committee would offer contracts to companies that can maintain the site, and those who run Sunset Memorial Gardens would in turn cover the costs of those contracts.

The petition still sits in Chancery Court. Assistant District Attorneys Stephen Hatchett and Drew Robinson, who hosted the community forum last week, did not return calls seeking comment.

The petition comes after the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance filed a consent order against Cecil Lawrence Inc. last year, the fourth consent order against the company since 2009, records show. Because of this consent order, which came after the state received complaints from citizens, Sunset Memorial Gardens is subject to random checkups from state officials four times a year.

Dale Lawrence with the Lawrence Group, meanwhile, said conditions at Sunset Memorial Gardens have improved since the district attorney filed the petition in April. He would not say whether the group changed its practices or when the graveyard began to look better.

"We're doing the best that we can," he said.

John McGowan said he has noticed a change. Last weekend, he visited his son's tombstone and noticed that the lawn seemed well manicured. Two years ago, this was not the case, he said.

When McGowan visited the graveyard two years ago, he said he found tire marks right through the yard. Someone had driven over his son's tombstone. It survived, but two tombstones next to it did not. They lay shattered, he said.

While the disarray of the graveyard was upsetting, he said the conditions of the mausoleum were worse. The stench was overpowering.

"It would make you gag," he said.

Loye Hamilton also has spoken out about the conditions of Sunset Memorial Gardens. He said his family owns about 20 plots there and has owned them since the 1950s. He says the graveyard used to look nice.

But not anymore. He said the cemetery has changed owners several times, and he doesn't like the way it looks anymore. He's found discarded trash and dirt on top of graves. The roads are cracked. It looks like an abandoned site, he said.

"All I want is to get what I paid for," he said. "I paid for a nice cemetery plot, and it was to be taken care of."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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