UPDATE: State receives preliminary report on deadline; Sunset avoids suspension
UPDATE: Sunset Memorial Gardens Cemetery could lose it's license to operate over poor conditions if the property owner does meet a list of demands by the Tennessee Dept. of Commerce and Insurance.
It's a story Channel 3 first broke in August. Tennessee state documents show the smell of "decomposing human remains" has been present there for at least 3 years. We've also shown you images of air fresheners and puddles of water near mausoleums.
Owner Cecil Lawrence was given months to clean up the property. His firm was required to hire a mausoleum expert who could inspect the grounds then provide a progress report with a plan of action.
State Officials did receive a preliminary progress report from Ensure-A-Seal out of Pennsylvania, just before the 5 p.m. deadline late Monday night. Officials say they are in the process of reviewing it and Sunset Mausoleum has not been suspended at this time.
Grieving families tell Channel 3, they want to see improvements made now.
"They're disgracing our loved ones, we put them here and paid good money to put them here and yet they just don't take care of anything," said Dennis Hysinger.
Dennis Hysinger doesn't visit his mother and niece, he says he just can't stomach the smell lurking inside of the Sunset Memorial Garden's Mausoleum.
"It smells like decaying bodies to be honest with you," said Hysinger.
In September, Channel 3 observed gnats, water puddles and warped flooring inside. Air fresheners and ventilation fans were being used to mask the odor. Some graves were unmarked and even cracked.
"It's sickening when you walk in and you smell the smell.. you see gnats, the water spots on the walls and bottom where water has leaked in," said Hysinger. "If it's water or remains, I don't know but it makes you sad."
"I can't come up here and enjoy sitting with my boys and reminiscing because of the condition of the cemetery," said Melanie Marshal who has her two young sons buried there.
"It's one thing when you have parents buried here but when you have little boys buried here and they're not being taken care of ... I don't know, the owner is not being held accountable," said Marshall.
There have been hundreds of complaints files since July. The owner's attorney William Colvin, tells Channel 3 , there were out-of-state experts inspecting the property over the weekend and again Monday to help come up with a time line for corrections. He says Lawrence is doing everything possible to make repairs and resolve any issues. Lawrence denies the odor claims, he believes the removal of old carpet has fixed the problem. Grieving families disagree.
" My mom passed away in 2003 and it's 2015, the smell has never went away so I dispute that back at them. Every time I've come up here and I don't care whether it's hot or raining outside there is a smell," said Hysinger. "It's not carpet, I've smelled wet carpet and that's not what it is."
Any plan of action submitted will have to be evaluated to determine if it meets the state's standards. If the state chooses to suspend the owner's license, the cemetery will be ordered to stop all burials until the problems are resolved. Stay with Channel 3 News on air and online for the very latest on this developing story.
A spokesman for a state agency said officials are still waiting on a final inspection report from a third party inspector tasked with evaluating Sunset Memorial Gardens in Bradley County.
Cecil Lawrence Inc., a Georgia based company that owns the property, has come under fire for the conditions at the cemetery and mausoleum. Lawrence hired McCleskey Mausoleums to inspect the mausoleum to meet requirements in a consent order.
Upon that inspection, Lawrence was required to turn in a time line for making any potential repairs.
A week after meeting with state officials and attorneys with the 10th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, nothing has been turned in.
“We expect to receive that report and time line soon,” said Kevin Walters, spokesman for the Department of Insurance and Commerce. “While no deadline for the completion of this task is outlined as part of the consent order, we know the Cleveland community expects this matter to be addressed sooner rather than later. We agree with that sentiment.”
If the conditions of the order are not met, Lawrence could have his license suspended to operate the cemetery.
The department has reviewed 200 plus formal complaints from family members who have loved ones at Sunset Memorial Gardens or/and Hilcrest Memorial Gardens.
“We will be processing these complaints,” Walters said.
Lawrence owns a total of three cemeteries in Tennessee including Sunset, Hilcrest as well as Wilson County Memorial Park in Lebanon.