Stiffed 

Some Memphis cemeteries are gravely neglected.

When asked to provide his epitaph, comedian W.C. Fields famously quipped, "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."

Memphians could be forgiven for expressing similar sentiments given the state of local afterlife affairs. In July, Forest Hill Cemeteries and Funeral Homes owner Clayton Smart informed his living clients that he could not honor contracts for prepaid burial plots and funerary expenses. Smart has been accused of embezzling money from the cemetery trust funds, and the parent company that owns Forest Hill recently filed for bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, some of the city's permanent residents are already suffering neglect of the perpetual care they bought long ago.

The Hollywood Cemetery Company, a for-profit organization established in 1909, owns two historically significant African-American cemeteries: Hollywood Cemetery on Hernando Road near I-240 and Mt. Carmel Cemetery at the corner of Elvis Presley Boulevard and Elliston.

Both are weedy and overgrown, with broken pieces of headstones scattered throughout. Hollywood is known to flood, and graves in both cemeteries have sunk, leaving each scarred with eerie indentations.

Tom Lee, the hero who saved 32 people from drowning in the Mississippi River in 1925, died in 1958 and was interred at Mt. Carmel. Blues musician Walter "Furry" Lewis died in 1981 and was buried in Hollywood. Both graves are marked with upright headstones. In addition to Lee and Lewis, hundreds of other people purchased burial plots and were laid to rest in the two cemeteries.

According to Robert Gribble, executive director of the state Board of Funeral Directors, Embalmers, Burial Services, and Cemetery Programs, for-profit cemeteries such as Hollywood or Forest Hill typically invest 20 percent of each purchase price into a trust fund. When the cemetery sells all its available plots, this fund -- as it steadily gains interest over the years -- should pay for the improvement and care of the graves in perpetuity.

A new law, dubbed the "Cemetery Act of 2006," defines care as the "continual maintenance of the cemetery grounds and graves," including cutting grass, raking leaves, and pruning trees and shrubs. Violators of this provision can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 11 months and 29 days, and a maximum fine of $2,500.

The state filed a certificate of administrative dissolution for the Hollywood Cemetery Company on August 19, 2005, after the company failed to file its annual report. Though Hollywood is officially inactive, it is still responsible for upkeep at Mt. Carmel and Hollywood cemeteries. According to Gribble, the company's improvement trust contains about $257,000.

"It's a bad situation for the consumer," Gribble says. "Whenever an owner slacks in his duties, theoretically, the earnings from a trust fund would operate the cemetery even if there are no lots to sell."

Though Gribble speculates that receivership is exactly what owners of neglected cemeteries want, the Cemetery Act can protect taxpayers from the burden. To bring action against the cemetery in chancery court, at least 5 percent of, or 10, lot owners and next of kin of lot owners (whichever number is smaller) can petition the local district attorney general. If the court finds that the cemetery is not maintained as the Cemetery Act provides, it can appoint a petitioner to perform the maintenance and then assess the costs to the company.

"It's a sensitive issue. It's sad for people who have loved ones buried there," Gribble says. "We're also sensitive to the fact that owners and operators need to comply with statutes and regulations."

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