CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Even as a steady stream of people filed into Ralph Buckner Funeral Home to register complaints about the upkeep of Sunset Memorial Gardens, maintenance workers were busy whitewashing the cemetery's mausoleum interiors on Thursday afternoon.
The cemetery, located on North Lee Highway and owned by Cecil Lawrence Inc. of Dallas, Ga., faces a possible suspension of its license in connection with conditions cited in state inspections that occurred between July 31 and Aug. 7. Decomposing human remains were linked to "noxious odors" emanating from Sunset Memorial Garden's New Chapel mausoleum, according to state authorities.
"There's no reason for it," said Ralph Buckner, who tells complainants that he shares their grief over the cemetery's conditions. Both of his parents and one of his daughters are interred in the New Chapel mausoleum, he said.
"The odor is so bad, I can't go visit them in the spring and summer," Buckner said.
The mausoleum odor has been a problem for at least three years, and the cemetery owner has been disciplined multiple times for failing to properly maintain a cemetery, according to a recent consent order.
Inspectors cited leaks, cracks in the drywall and ceiling, missing crypt plates, mold and debris as problems in one of the smaller mausoleums adjacent to the New Chapel mausoleum.
More than 100 people responded in person within three days of the publication of a newspaper advertisement that asked people to contact Buckner's funeral home with their complaints about Sunset Memorial Gardens and Hillcrest Memorial Gardens, which also is located in Cleveland and owned by Cecil Lawrence Inc., he said. About 150 more people have requested complaint forms be faxed or sent to them, he said.
He initially expected to receive 30 to 40 responses, but now expects he will have between 300 and 400 complaints by the time he submits them to the state on Oct. 2, Buckner said.
Complainants thanked Buckner for his efforts, but said they would not speak to the Times Free Press out of fear of retribution by the cemetery owners.
Improper groundskeeping has been cited by complainants in addition to mausoleum concerns.
The cemetery owners have been fined $5,000 by the Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance and given 30 days to submit a plan of corrective action for the Sunset mausoleums, according to a consent order issued in late August.
That order also requires the cemetery owner to enlist the services of a mausoleum construction expert and to properly seal all crypts and prevent offensive smells within.
The 10th Judicial District Attorney's Office is also taking action against Cecil Lawrence Inc. and has filed a petition for contempt to enforce a consent decree issued in January.
The petition, filed with the Chancery Court of Bradley County, states that the company has not complied with several consent order stipulations, including a failure to maintain effective complaint procedures and a failure to respond to complaints within a reasonable amount of time.
District Attorney Stephen Crump has said his office has received "many complaints about Sunset Memorial Gardens."
Cecil Lawrence Inc. has not responded to requests for comment.
Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.