UPDATE: More than 125 complaints pending against Cecil Lawrence - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

UPDATE: More than 125 complaints pending against Cecil Lawrence owned cemeteries

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  • UPDATE: More than 125 complaints pending against Cecil Lawrence owned cemeteriesMore>>

  • State: Mausoleum company still needs to inspect Sunset

    State: Mausoleum company still needs to inspect Sunset

    Thursday, October 1 2015 2:47 PM EDT2015-10-01 18:47:51 GMT
    A spokesperson with the Department of Insurance and Commerce says a third party inspector's recent visit to Sunset Memorial Gardens was not the required inspection described in a consent order.More
    A spokesperson with the Department of Insurance and Commerce says a third party inspector's recent visit to Sunset Memorial Gardens was not the required inspection described in a consent order.More
BRADLEY COUNTY, TN (WRCB) -

UPDATE: One by one loved ones have walked through the doors of Ralph Buckner Funeral Home and Crematory this week.

Two full page ads ran in the Cleveland Daily Banner asking for loved ones to come forward and file complaints about conditions at two local cemeteries -- Sunset Memorial Gardens and Hilcrest Memorial Gardens -- both owned by Dallas, Ga.-based Cecil Lawrence Inc.

Every complaint has a story. In-laws, spouses, parents, children and grandparents share a final resting place. Loved ones still miss them. 

READ MORE | Cemetery owner hires out-of-state contractor to meet requirements

When they go to visit, they are greeted with damaged markers, missing vases, weeds and trash, according to complaints. Grave sites are uneven sometimes with no grass. A backhoe used to dig graves can sometimes be spotted by grieving family members. Flies swarm visitors inside the mausoleums at Sunset. In the summer months, the air is heavy with the smell of decomposition.

"Not a good environment for someone mourning," one person wrote on a formal complaint. "The Cecil Lawrence Group has nothing but disrespect for the remains that are there.They care nothing about the families as evidenced by their staff and the way they maintain their grounds."

As of Thursday afternoon, Ralph Buckner Jr. said as many as 125 complaints were collected by his staff. 

Each person asked for the paperwork to fill out to make a complaint with the Department of Insurance and Commerce regarding the cemetery.

“All my complaints have always fallen on deaf ears and the situation only continues to get worse,” another person wrote on the state form.

At least 10 people each took home five forms for family members to complete and return.

Some of the complaints were more than two pages long. Others only took two words: "general upkeep."

Buckner plans to run the ad one more day in Sunday's paper. He plans to send off the complaints to the state next week.

Monday, Sept. 28, 2015 marks the deadline outlined in court documents for Lawrence to respond to conditions outlined by the Department of Insurance and Commerce as well as petition filed by 10th Judicial District Attorney General Stephen Crump.

To file a complaint, visit the state's website here.


PREVIOUS STORY: Up to 51 people have filled out formal complaints about conditions at Sunset Memorial Gardens as of 2 p.m. Wednesday.

The move comes after funeral director and business owner Ralph Buckner Jr. took out a full page ad in the Cleveland Daily Banner asking for families of loved ones buried or entombed at the site to come forward.

Sunset Memorial Gardens, located on North Lee Highway, is owned by Cecil Lawrence Inc. based in Dallas, Ga. Lawrence also owns Hilcrest Memorial Gardens on South Ocoee Street. Buckner has collected 14 complaints so far about conditions at that site.

"We examine every complaint thoroughly and we move on from there," said Kevin Walters, director of communications for the Department of Insurance and Commerce. "Every complaint is judged on its own merit."

Before Buckner ran the ad, there were a total of seven complaints for Sunset in the last five years, including one he filed about the condition of the mausoleum, records show. For Hilcrest, there were no complaints submitted to the state in the last five years.

The cemetery has been fined numerous times by the state Department of Insurance and Commerce regarding the upkeep of the cemetery and mausoleum.

A recent consent order at the state level requires Lawrence to hire a mausoleum expert to make recommendations for needed repairs as well as create a timeline setting deadlines. Lawrence has until Friday to submit a plan and comply. If he does not comply, the state could potentially suspend his license.

10th Judicial District Attorney General Stephen Crump filed a petition to enforce a consent decree last month.

State records show Lawrence withdrew $340,000 from Sunset Memorial Gardens improvement trust fund and deposited in company's general operating account in January 2009. None of the withdrawals were used for the improvement of the cemetery. He later made deposits to the improvement care trust fund to replenish amounts and was ordered to pay $34,000 in penalties.

Crump said one of the conditions include Lawrence turning over financial records. 

"I've seen enough to know I want to know for sure that there aren't irregularities," he said in a recent interview.

Friday is also the deadline for Lawrence to respond to conditions outlined in the decree. Crump has asked for the following:

  • a hearing to find Lawrence in contempt of the consent order
  • that Lawrence provide all the names of officers, directors and stockholders of Cecil Lawrence Inc.
  • turn over forensically audited copies of corporate financial records including the improvement and perpetual care trust funds. 
  • Lawrence be held responsible for all costs to make any needed repairs
  • a receiver be appointed to oversee the cemetery

Stay with Channel 3 for more on this developing story.


PREVIOUS STORY: Families completed 11 complaints Monday against Sunset Memorial Gardens. The cemetery has documented problems of unkempt grave sites as well as odor emitting from decomposing bodies entombed in the mausoleum.

The growing number of complaints outnumbers the seven complaints made against Sunset Memorial in the past five years, according to state records.

 “Your loved ones, and surviving family members, deserve better conditions than this,” the ad states.

The move comes one day after Ralph Buckner, Jr. took out a full page ad in Sunday's Cleveland Daily Banner asking for families impacted by poor conditions at the cemetery to come by his funeral home and fill out a formal complaint form to send to the state Department of Insurance and Commerce.  

Buckner plans to run the ad two more times this week. His parents and daughter, Shipley, are entombed at the mausoleum at Sunset Memorial.

While there are actions being taken by the state and the district attorney’s office against Sunset Memorial Gardens, Buckner hopes to apply more pressure.  

“We need all the numbers we can get," Buckner said in an interview Monday morning.

During a recent visit to the cemetery, a Channel 3 Eyewitness crew observed swarming gnats, water puddles and warped, bubbled flooring that was installed just a month ago. Air freshners are placed throughout the mausoleums to ward off an overwhelming smell of decaying bodies on hot days. One section of the mausoleum has a window air conditioning unit. Others only have ventilation fans.

A complaint in 2012 noted body fluids leaking on the floor.

In the cemetery, some grave sites have missing or damaged markers. Grass is missing from some long standing graves. Weeds grow out of some on site monuments.

“There could be a lot of complaints out there, but they have to go a step further and sign a formal complaint – or the state doesn’t recognize a complaint,” Buckner said.

While a Channel 3 Eyewitness News crew was at Ralph Buckner Funeral Home and Crematory on Monday, two ladies with families at Sunset came in to fill out the state forms.  

Kevin Walters, director of communications for the state Department of Insurance and Commerce, said all complaints are treated seriously. 

Walters said complaints will be reviewed by the program director at the state. The owner of the cemetery, Cecil Lawrence, will be asked to respond. A copy of the response will be sent to the person making the complaint. All of the documentation is then reviewed by the state's legal team to determine if an investigation is needed.

In the last five years, state has assessed more than $55,000 in civil penalties against Sunset Memorial Gardens.

The ad also included Hilcrest Memorial Gardens. Both cemeteries belong to Dallas, Ga.-based owner Lawrence. As of Monday afternoon, six people filled out complaints regarding the cemetery. They are also the two largest cemeteries in Bradley County leaving families with few other options for burial.

Channel 3 reached out to Lawrence via email and phone. He did not respond to a requests for comment.

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