Cleveland cemetery faces possible license suspension

Sunset Memorial Gardens on North Lee Highway in Cleveland, Tenn., is facing a licence suspension for violating state regulations.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Sunset Memorial Gardens on North Lee Highway is in trouble again.

The cemetery, owned by Cecil Lawrence Inc., of Dallas, Ga., is facing summary suspension of its license after a July 31 inspection discovered violations of public health, safety or welfare, according to a state news release.

The Tennessee Burial Services/Cemetery division of the Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance has summoned the owner to an Aug. 21 hearing in Nashville.

"The sole issue to be considered will be whether the public health, safety or welfare imperatively requires emergency action including summary suspension of the cemetery license of Sunset Memorial Gardens," said Assistant General Counsel Shilina B. Brown in an Aug. 12 letter addressed to Cecil Lawrence, the company's CEO.

The company did not respond to Times Free Press requests for comment. Employees said the owner's son, Dale Lawrence, was the company spokesperson, but he did not respond to questions.

The incident leading to the possible suspension started April 15 with a complaint to the Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance.

In the complaint, a man said he and his sister could not find their father's grave during an April cemetery visit because the father's grave was not marked. The father was buried in December 2014.

photo Sunset Memorial Gardens on North Lee Highway in Cleveland, Tenn., is facing a licence suspension for violating state regulations.

"Complainant observed many unmarked graves along with many damaged markers," according to the consent order's findings of fact. "There were marker bases strewn around; one was found lying in what appeared to be a ditch. Additionally, there were many broken pieces of lawn crypts on the grounds."

The owner admitted to the findings as part of a consent order filed June 29 and accompanied by a $500 fine.

In October 2013, the Times Free Press reported that the 10th Judicial District Attorney's Office hosted a public forum concerning issues with Sunset Memorial Gardens and Hillcrest Memorial Gardens, also owned by Cecil Lawrence Inc.

Patricia Daugherty, a plot owner who was among about 50 Cleveland residents to attend the forum, claimed she discovered a stench-filled and deteriorated mausoleum during an April 2013 visit. She said the interior of the building contained broken glass, dead birds and a carpet soiled with animal droppings and mud.

In April 2013, the district attorney's office filed a petition in Bradley County Chancery Court to enforce cemetery maintenance. The petition cited 40 signatures of angry residents alleging that Sunset Memorial Gardens' condition was unlawful.

Sunset Memorial Gardens has been subjected to random inspections by state officials four times a year. The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance filed four consent orders against Cecil Lawrence Inc. between 2009 and 2012.

In October 2013, Dale Lawrence told the Times Free Press, "We're doing the best that we can."

Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at paul.leach.press@gmail.com.