Families call for cleanup at Cleveland cemetery - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports


Families call for cleanup at Cleveland cemetery

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Poorly-maintained grounds and graves at a Cleveland cemetery are affecting thousands of local families and Bradley County and the State of Tennessee are taking notice. 

Channel 3 has uncovered numerous complaints against Sunset Memorial Gardens in Cleveland. Seven complaints have been filed since 2010 and the state has assessed more than $55,000 in civil penalties against Sunset Memorial Gardens.

Local funeral home director Ralph Buckner is one of those people who’ve complained to the state in recent years about conditions inside the mausoleum. That’s where Buckner's parents and daughter, Shipley, are entombed at Sunset Memorial Gardens.

“It doesn’t really hit home for you until you have someone up here. That’s when it hits home and you want it fixed,” Buckner said. “We’ve got to do something. Not just for my family but for the citizens of Cleveland and Bradley County.”

Buckner can't stand the smell during the summer, making it hard for him to visit.

A state auditor last month said on a scale of 1-10, the odor was 8.5. The state says the smell of "decomposing human remains" has been there for at least 3 years.

Sunset Memorial Gardens responded in August saying it was working to control the odor with air conditioning units and the type of air fresheners you might use in your home or car.

Channel 3 tagged along with Buckner for a visit this week to the mausoleum. We noticed gnats and spiders, water puddles and even the new floor was bubbling up.

Channel 3 reviewed hundreds of pages in inspection records and complaints filed over the last five years. One citation from 2012 notes body fluids on the floor. In August 2015, the state found a leaking roof, stains, cracks and mold. A crypt plate fell and shattered on the floor.

But the problems aren't just in the mausoleum.

"Graves sunk in, piles of dirt everywhere, stones that have been chipped, vases missing," said concerned mother Melanie Marshall.

Melanie Marshall buried her two boys, Jeremy and Jess, at the cemetery. She started a Facebook page called "Restoring Sunset Memorial Gardens" to gather complaints, feedback and support from others in her situation.

"I'm not alone in fighting this battle. A lot of people have been fighting it for years and we just can't get anything done," she said. "It's hard enough when you have parents here but little boys? I won't rest until its cleaned up. This is about the folks we love and they've got names and they've got faces."

Sunset Memorial Gardens is owned and operated by the Lawrence Group. Channel 3 reached out to owner Cecil Lawrence Thursday but he chose not to comment.

"A lot of times, the family of people buried in cemeteries just sort of suffer in silence," said District Attorney General Steve Crump. "They'll go up, they'll mow the plot, they'll weed eat around it, they'll do what they can to keep the graves cleared or they'll do what they can but they're dissatisfied."

Like many in Bradley County, District Attorney General Steve Crump has parents buried at Sunset Memorial Gardens. He's taking legal action in hopes of getting people like Buckner and Marshall a quick but permanent fix.

In January, Crump entered a Consent Order with Cecil Lawrence who agreed to maintain certain standards and procedures for upkeep of the cemetery grounds and mausoleum. But that agreement, Crump said, wasn't completely met. So he filed for a petition for contempt against Lawrence for failure "to respond and correct identified and verified problems on the cemetery grounds or in the mausoleum facility within a reasonable time as set out in the Consent Order."

Lawrence must now answer to the petition and the two parties will set a date for Chancery Court.

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