CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- A Sept. 4 inspection by an out-of-state mausoleum construction expert disputes some allegations about the conditions of mausoleums belonging to Sunset Memorial Gardens. The Bradley County facility is on North Lee Highway and owned by Cecil Lawrence Inc. of Dallas, Ga.
The cemetery faces possible summary suspension of its license after state inspections between July 31 and Aug. 7 concluded decomposing human remains were the source of "noxious odors" emanating from its New Chapel mausoleum.
The consultant report, which is dated Sept. 18 and filed by McCleskey Mausoleums of Buford, Ga., "found no evidence of odors," said attorney William Colvin of Cavett & Abbott PLLC, who represents the cemetery owner.
Mausoleum odors have been a recurring problem for at least three years and the cemetery owner has "been disciplined multiple times" for failing to properly maintain Sunset Memorial Gardens, according to a recent consent order filed by the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance.
Leaks, cracks in drywall and the ceiling, missing crypt plates, mold and debris in a mausoleum adjacent to the New Chapel Museum have also been cited by state officials.
Colvin said no evidence of leaks was found, according to the McCleskey Mausoleum inspection. The report also contradicts any media reports stating that the ceilings were composed of gypsum wallboard. Instead, the inspection states they are built of textured, poured concrete, Colvin said.
"We owe it to the state to provide the inspection to them first," Colvin said in response to a Times Free Press request to review the McCleskey report.
Cecil Lawrence Inc. hired McCleskey Mausoleums as part of an Aug. 25 consent order that gave it 30 days to retain the services of a mausoleum construction expert.
On Sept. 25, the cemetery owners notified the Department of Commerce and Insurance they had complied with that portion of the consent order, Kevin Walters, the agency's communications director, said in a released statement. Inspection results are expected to be shared with the department in the near future, he said.
In addition to conducting the inspection of the mausoleum, McCleskey Mausoleums is to "provide details about a proposal for improving it to acceptable standards," Walters said.
McCleskey, a nationally recognized mausoleum construction company, is working with Cecil Lawrence in a consulting capacity, Walters said. Until it receives a Tennessee contractor's license, the company may not perform renovations or construction at Sunset Memorials Gardens, he said.
Although no overall hard deadline is mentioned in the consent order, it notes time is of the essence in correcting the mausoleum situation.
Ralph Buckner, a local funeral home director who has relatives interred at the New Chapel mausoleum, has expressed doubts a simple fix will take care of the problem.
"They've been putting a Band-Aid on the problem for years," said Buckner, who asserts the decades-old mausoleum structure is simply failing. "With what they need to do to fix it, it would cost about the same to build a new one."
He said more than 200 people have already responded to a Buckner Funeral Home offer to collect and file complaints with the state about the conditions and upkeep of Sunset Memorial Gardens and Hilcrest Memorial Gardens, also located in Cleveland and owned by Cecil Lawrence Inc.
The funeral home will collect complaints until Oct. 2, he said.
Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at email@example.com.