2 years after cemetery shutdown, Tenn. families still seek answers

In this Monday, May 25, 2015 photo, people visit the Galilee Memorial Gardens cemetery in Memphis, Tenn. The cemetery was temporarily opened to visitors on Memorial Day. It was closed in 2014 after owner Jemar Lambert was accused of misplacing hundreds of bodies, burying multiple cadavers in the same grave, and crushing caskets to fit them into single plots. (AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht)

BARTLETT, Tenn. (AP) — Jackie Hughes longs to grieve over her sister’s death in simple ways: visit her grave, lay out flowers, and pour a can of Bud Light — her sister’s favorite — on the spot. But three years after Tawana Hillard’s death, Hughes hasn’t been able to spill a drop.

Related: Judge dismisses Tenn. lawsuit claiming two people buried in one grave

Hillard is missing. Since her graveside service at Galilee Memorial Gardens near Memphis in 2012, her body has been lost, along with hundreds of others whose remains were entrusted to the cemetery.

“I want to be able to walk in, to put flowers down, to just kneel and talk with her, whatever,” Hughes says. Instead she leafs through photo albums at home, smiling as she remembers Saturday mornings spent talking with her sister about their love of blues music.

Two years ago, state officials closed Galilee. Owner Jemar Lambert was accused of misplacing hundreds of bodies, burying multiple cadavers in the same grave, and crushing caskets to fit them into single plots. Lambert received 10 years’ probation in a plea deal. He left behind disorganized records, an investigation that continues today, and families who don’t know where their loved ones are buried.

Hughes says Lambert told her family that several burials were scheduled the day of her sister’s ceremony, so he would put Hillard in her grave later. Other families say Lambert told them the same story. Hughes is among hundreds now suing Galilee and the funeral homes that sent bodies there. She says she would use any damages awarded to find her sister and relocate her body to another cemetery.

“How much longer do we have to wait?” Hughes says. “I’m still in limbo.”

What happened at Galilee is not all that rare. From Washington, D.C., to Chicago and elsewhere, lawsuits have been filed and charges pursued over mismanaged cemeteries, with accusations of unmarked graves, burial urns unearthed and dumped, plots resold, and vaults broken to make room for more remains.

Critics and families want more rigorous oversight nationwide, from small, family-run operations like Galilee to well-known national sites such as Arlington National Cemetery.

The federal government leaves cemetery regulation largely to states, which vary dramatically in approach, according to an Associated Press analysis of statutes, enforcement and lawsuits. Most states regulate cemeteries that are run as businesses, such as Galilee, but not religious, municipal or family cemeteries. State laws, however, are largely limited to licensing, establishing funeral director boards, developing a complaint process and providing financial protections for consumers who buy plots.

Many laws say officials reserve the right to inspect cemeteries, but that occurs only when regulators act on complaints. Few states — California is one, Florida another — require annual on-site inspections.

“Cemetery regulation is almost uniformly awful, where it exists at all,” says Joshua Slocum, director of the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance, which has pushed for more federal regulation.

A lack of oversight appears to have led to the malfeasance at Galilee, families and attorneys suing the cemetery say.

Tennessee law requires records inspections every two years at cemeteries, but not annual inspections of grounds. Aside from revoking or suspending a license, performing random or quarterly inspections, and issuing fines up to about $1,000, Tennessee has little power to punish cemetery owners.

In 2010, Jemar Lambert took over the tree-lined Galilee cemetery from his father, whose grave sits unperturbed near the entrance. It catered to working- and middle-class families, most of whom are black. But record-keeping became a problem, according to investigators’ reports.

Galilee’s registration certificate expired in December 2010. The state didn’t renew it after auditors discovered Lambert’s disorganized records. The state started investigating, but Lambert kept burying bodies at Galilee for three years as he appealed for a license renewal.

By 2013, investigators had accused Lambert of burying up to 200 bodies in land adjacent to Galilee that he didn’t own. In 2014, he faced more charges. Relatives of three people buried at Galilee complained to him that they couldn’t find the graves. Lambert and two funeral directors searched records, and disinterred and opened caskets — finding some that were crushed and stacked in single gravesites. They never found the bodies. The funeral directors informed the state. Investigators charged Lambert with abuse of a corpse and theft, and took over management of the cemetery.

In March 2015, Lambert accepted a plea deal. To Hughes, his punishment isn’t enough. “Ten years’ probation?” she says. “Well, hell. Go on fixin’ to do what you was doin’, because you’re not going to get no time behind it.”

Investigators have reviewed Galilee’s slipshod paper records against the plots and inspected the adjacent land. Experts jabbed a 10-foot pole into the ground in front of grave markers — if it didn’t go down as far as it should, they’d probably find another set of stacked coffins. Burial areas have been tightened to fit more bodies, some graves are marked occupied but appear empty, and many are too shallow, according to court records.

Through his lawyer, Lambert declined an interview. Attorney William J. Haynes III says in a statement that problems at Galilee existed before Lambert was born.

“Many of the allegations surrounding Jemar’s tenure at Galilee do not take these facts into account. That is highly unfair to Jemar and his family, who have cooperated with the Galilee receivership to the best of their ability,” the statement says.

State Sen. Mark Norris, who represents the Memphis suburb Bartlett, home to Galilee, says the state needs to look further into what happened and says officials could consider reviewing cemetery records more frequently.

“Perhaps at the beginning of the next General Assembly we’ll be able to make some changes that will give people comfort,” he says. “It may be cold comfort and it’s not going to be enough to really address the suffering of these particular families, but maybe … because of this terrible experience they’ve had, others may not experience the same fate.”

The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance declined to provide an interview with Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak about Galilee and cemetery oversight. Instead, in an email, spokesman Kevin Walters placed blame on Lambert, accusing him of falsifying records to deceive auditors and customers.

“We empathize with the people who have been grievously affected by Mr. Lambert’s reckless and criminal behavior,” Walters wrote. “Today, it is easy for anyone to second guess.”

Changes in oversight would be unfair to cemeteries “attempting to operate their businesses honorably,” Walters wrote.

Many of those affected by Galilee think the state hasn’t done enough. Wanda Chambers, whose mother and other relatives are buried there, filed a complaint in 2013 with the state, more than two years after Galilee’s license expired. She says Lambert was still burying people and Galilee was poorly maintained. She’s not satisfied with the state’s response.

“They should have been able to move a little faster and do a better job to open the cemetery back up to let us go back in,” Chambers says.

The state says no decision regarding Galilee’s future will be made until investigators determine how many grave spaces are occupied.

Today at Galilee, friends and family can rarely visit loved ones. Last Memorial Day, the state reopened Galilee for a few hours — the only time the gates have opened to the public since February 2014.

Visitors navigated uneven grounds, broken headstones and trash. They tiptoed among ragged plots, searching for those they had lost once, and then again. A pastor stood on top of old graves and prayed. A man played “Amazing Grace” on his saxophone. One woman stepped in a hole and fell.

Hughes again searched for her sister’s gravesite. She cried, holding flowers and balloons.

“I can’t find my sister,” she screamed.

Minutes later, she gave up, releasing the balloons toward the heavens.

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