So much for advanced planning.
Barbara Preston and her parents bought four adjoining cemetery plots two decades ago intending to spend eternity together at Fairview Memorial Gardens in Stockbridge.
That’s not going to happen.
Someone else — a complete stranger — already occupies one of the family’s four grave sites, and that unknown person’s spouse has dibs on another of the plots they bought. It’s a cautionary tale of how even the most carefully laid plans can go awry.
The revelation that the family’s plots had been resold without their knowledge has broadsided them, creating a stressful decision they had hoped to avoid by buying years in advance. Jessica McDunn, a spokeswoman for Houston-based Service Corporation International, which owns Fairview Memorial, declined to discuss details of the case but said the matter has been resolved.
Situations such as the Covington family’s are rare and typically caused by mistake rather than graft, said officials with Georgia and national organizations that oversee cemetery matters.
“We don’t see these things very often, and when they do (happen), they’re honest mistakes and the cemetery usually makes good,” said Bob Fells, executive director and legal counsel for the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, a Sterling, Va.-based group with 7,200 members worldwide. “It’s extremely rare for a cemetery to deliberately resell a plot. It usually happens when a cemetery hasn’t updated its records and doesn’t realize it’s selling a space already sold.”
Though she reached a resolution with the cemetery, it is little comfort to Preston who made the discovery last month and had to struggle to work it out while making funeral preparations for her 84-year-old mother, Bernice McGee, who is in the final stages of kidney failure. It was at McGee’s urging that Preston decided to check on the cemetery plots, purchased in 1992. Preston pulled up to the site near an area chosen because it would make visiting the cemetery easier. Seeing the occupied graves initially stumped Preston and had her questioning herself.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock,” said Preston, a 63-year-old hairdresser. “Maybe I’d made a mistake.”
Cemetery officials initially assured her no one was buried in her family plots. But hours later, they awkwardly acknowledged that “someone had dropped the ball.” Perhaps, they suggested, Preston and her family might be interested in space in the back of the cemetery. That wasn’t going to work. Neither was exhuming the bodies of the people already in their space.
Preston spent the next week or so in a tug of war over space and price. She and her parents had paid $1,360 for the four plots. But now it was going to take $10,600 — the going rate for the four plots — to relocate.
“I just wanted them to pay for the lots,” Preston said. “I didn’t even want to be in the transaction. Just buy lots at another cemetery. They wouldn’t do that.”
The two sides finally worked it out when Preston got the money she needed to buy plots elsewhere.
Clayton County resident Mimi Holland faced a similar problem a decade ago. A record-keeping error led to some of her family’s eight plots being sold. Instead of being together, Holland’s family is now scattered throughout the cemetery. After learning of Preston’s case, Holland says she plans to check on her new grave plots to make sure they’re still intact.
“We haven’t checked … in several years. This has made us want to go back,” Holland said. “We thought it was a rare instance.”
More extreme cases of resold plots have garnered national attention for their macabre nature.
In July 2009, a historic cemetery outside Chicago called Burr Oak became a crime scene after the Cook County Sheriff’s Office alleged that workers dug up more than 200 graves, dumped the bodies into unmarked mass graves and resold the plots. Among the cemetery’s occupants: blues singer Dinah Washington and Emmett Till, the teenager brutally murdered in Mississippi in the 1950s for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Fells, who has been in the industry 30 years, called the Burr Oak case “unprecedented.”
“That was a criminal act,” Fells said, noting the manager was given 12 years in prison.
Like other industries, the funeral service business has undergone tremendous changes in recent years as larger conglomerates buy up smaller mom-and-pop operations. That in turn has led to, in some instances, policy and management changes, staff turnover and records being shuffled. Fells says the change in the industry has actually helped prevent the type of problems that Preston’s family faced because of better record-keeping and greater government oversight.
In Georgia, the state only steps into a dispute when the two sides are unable to reach an agreement. A check of records with the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees funeral homes and cemetery matters, found no case of disciplinary actions involving the resale of cemetery plots within the past 10 years. The Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs has had only a few cases of cemetery-related complaints, including one involving the resale of a burial plot.
Meanwhile, Preston found four plots together at East Lawn Cemetery in McDonough. The new plots overlook a waterfall-style fountain adorned with a large angel.
“It’s beautiful,” Preston said. But the recent ordeal robbed her of precious time with her mother.
“I can never get that (time) back.”
What to do if your burial plot has been resold
While the resale of burial plots is rare, it does happen. Here’s how to protect yourself and what to do if your plot is sold:
- If you’ve made pre-arrangements and bought burial plots, let family members know where the deeds or contracts to the plots are located.
- The best way to prove ownership is with the proper documentation, whether that’s a contract or deed. Keep those records in an easily accessible place.
- If you own cemetery spaces, especially those purchased a while back or ones you inherited, contact the cemetery to confirm the lot locations and see whether the plots still show you as the owner. If necessary, physically look at the plot to make sure it is still yours and is not occupied.
- If you inherited plots, contact the cemetery to let it know about the change in ownership.
- If you move, give the cemetery your new address so you can be notified in case there is a change in ownership at the cemetery or new procedures and policies are put in place.
- Make sure the cemetery has updated records of who owns the burial rights and how they can be contacted.
WHAT TO DO IF YOUR PLOT HAS BEEN RESOLD
- Ask the cemetery how it will rectify the problem. The usual solution is to offer similar spaces, without any cost to you.
- If you’re unable to work out a solution, you should be able to get proper compensation. Most cemeteries have their own liability insurance to cover such situations.
- If you’re unable to work out an agreement with the cemetery or its insurer, contact the state agency that oversees cemetery matters. In Georgia, it’s the Georgia Board of Cemeterians, which oversees such complaints, or the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees all matters related to cemeteries and funeral homes. Contact the cemeterian board’s Professional Licensing Division in Macon at 478-207-2440 or the Secretary of State’s Office at 404-656-2881 or log on to www.sos.ga.gov.
- If that doesn’t work, call Bob Fells at the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association at 1-800 645-7700.
- As a last resort, you may have to hire an attorney.
Source: The International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association