WSAZ Investigates | Navigating the death care industry

Published: Oct. 15, 2020 at 9:57 PM EDT
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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Families all across our region have dealt with cemeteries in disrepair or deteriorating shape.

Earlier this year, we heard from several residents who were heartbroken to find their loved ones burial sites in poor shape.

“It’s borderline infuriating,” said Fred Kitchen.

Fred Kitchen is a local funeral home director and says he wants families to ask the right questions so they’re prepared when planning to bury a loved one.

He’s been working in the industry for decades and says he attended mortuary school and participates in continuing education classes.

“I walk a journey with these families and help them through some of the most difficult times,” Kitchen said.

Funeral homes are inspected by the state of West Virginia, while cemeteries are not. The only oversight for cemeteries comes at the hands of the Tax Commission, who is responsible for the perpetual care funds that cemeteries are required to maintain.

About 10 percent of the money paid in advance is set in a trust, to go toward maintenance, repairs and other upkeep of the property.

“We believe you have one opportunity when you have a funeral or memorial service to get things right,” Kitchen said.

He works with many cemeteries in the area and believes some are in better shape than others.

“A lot of funeral homes have done things right and then the cemetery has let those families down, which really hurt the entire experience," Kitchen said. "They’re going to carry that for the rest of their life.”

Kitchen wants to warn families about the practice of pre-burial vaults. While it’s not a new concept, he says it’s something that is surprising to a lot of people who didn’t realize it was written in their contract.

It’s something that benefits the cemetery companies, but not the consumer.

“There’s an advantage to them," Kitchen said. 'The goods have been delivered at that point once it’s buried which allows them to have certain benefits to retaining all of the funds, as opposed to where that money is set aside and used at a later date.”

He says funeral directors are on site to make sure the vault is sealed correctly, but what they notice is that those vaults that have been pre-buried are oftentimes getting damaged as they’re dug up or are full of mud and water.

“We’re not going to bury this casket with this loved on in this vault until you clean that up and clean that out,” Kitchen said.

Many people purchase their vaults in advance as part of the pre-need agreement. Kitchen says if you order from a funeral home, they will order the materials ahead of the service, not years in advance like some cemeteries.

“What is worse than going to the cemetery where you’ve purchased grave space, knowing nobody is in there and you look and see a fresh grave dug in your grave space?” Kitchen said.

Sometimes, when vaults are pre-buried, they may sit out outside in the elements for some time before they are placed in the ground causing further deterioration.

He encourages everyone to research companies thoroughly before making a choice. Try looking through online reviews. Visit the property yourself and look for details like if a lightbulb is missing. He says if a facility isn’t willing to change a lightbulb, then there might be other troubling maintenance issues.

The West Virginia Attorney General’s Office says since Oct. 15, 2018, they have received 115 complaints about cemeteries.

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey says anyone who has concerns should file a complaint so they can investigate.

“We want to know if a company is misrepresenting something to the public,” said Morrisey.

Funeral homes are also regulated by the Federal Trade Commission.

“One of the most difficult things we see after a burial, is monuments being run over by lawnmowers and not getting fixed,” said Kitchen. “Or learning that the graves are sinking, causing the family distress.”

He encourages everyone to shop around, learn more about a company, its practices. Make sure to read all of the fine print in a contract, so you aren’t signing or agreeing to something you aren’t comfortable with.

You do not have to purchase your vault or casket from a cemetery.

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