published Monday, February 10th, 2014

Memphis-area cemetery, funeral homes sued by relatives of dead

MEMPHIS — Relatives of people buried at a Tennessee cemetery are suing its owner and funeral homes that sent bodies there, alleging the cemetery operated without a proper registration and stacked several caskets in one plot.

Meanwhile, a state agency says Galilee Memorial Gardens buried bodies for two years after its registration ran out, as it tried unsuccessfully to get a new one.

A complaint filed Sunday claims Galilee moved bodies without permission, misplaced or lost track of buried remains and stacked multiple caskets in single burial plots — sometimes by crushing caskets to make them fit.

The suit was filed by lawyers for relatives of two people buried at the cemetery in suburban Bartlett, outside Memphis. Two funeral homes that sent bodies to Galilee for burial also are being sued, with plaintiffs alleging they should have been informed that family members were being sent to an unlicensed cemetery.

Cemetery owner Jemar Lambert was arrested Jan. 24 on charges that three bodies were buried in the same grave without permission. He has a court hearing scheduled for Tuesday on charges of abuse of a corpse and theft.

In a separate case, Lambert was indicted last year on charges that he sold burial plots to families on adjacent land not owned by the cemetery.

The lawsuit seeks class-action status for relatives of people buried at the cemetery since Dec. 31, 2010, when the suit claims the cemetery's registration expired. The class could number into the hundreds.

The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, which oversees the state's cemeteries, denied a registration attempt by Galilee in 2011 because of problems with their paperwork and other issues. The cemetery lost an appeal of that decision, department spokeswoman Kate Abernathy said.

In June 2012, the department ordered Galilee to cease operations until it filed a successful registration application, Abernathy said. After an early 2013 registration also was denied, the department authorized Galilee to keep maintaining the cemetery and fulfill obligations for "pre-need" burials, which are arranged in advance.

Abernathy said burials were taking place throughout the failed registration and appeal process, and after Lambert was hit with the first charge. She said the state only gave Lambert authority to maintain the grounds and fulfill its pre-need burial contracts while prohibiting him from soliciting future business.

"It appeared that he did not adhere to the directives," Abernathy said.

The cemetery was fully shut down when Lambert was arrested, roughly two years after its registration expired. A judge in Nashville said Monday that a receiver will be appointed to take control of the cemetery.

Lambert's lawyer in the criminal case did not immediately return a call seeking comment. A telephone line for one of Lambert's businesses named in the suit was disconnected. The Associated Press could not immediately determine who is representing Lambert in the civil case.

Edgar Miller, chief of operations for N.J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home, declined comment. A message left seeking comment from M.J. Edwards Funeral Home was not immediately returned.

Plaintiff's lawyers also are seeking damages up to $100 million.

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