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WSAZ INVESTIGATES | Grave Concerns

(WSAZ)
Published: Jun. 15, 2020 at 11:39 AM EDT
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The pain that comes with losing a loved one is something that takes many people years and sometimes their whole life to try to overcome.

For some in our region, they can't even begin the grieving process because they say their family members' final resting places are anything but peaceful.

Issues like cracked headstones, poor drainage, and missing vases have left families upset and desperate for results after spending months voicing their concerns to property management.

Jan Abbett visits her mother at Spring Valley Memory Gardens. In December, on the day of her service, she says, the property was covered in mud. They had to stage a place below the actual plot, near the road, to hold the ceremony. Abbett never got to see her mom laid to rest.

"I even wonder if she was given the grace and dignity that she deserved," Abbett said.

Over at White Chapel Memorial Gardens in Barboursville, Kathy Boudreau buried her father more than a decade ago. Her mother was later laid to rest beside him.

Since then, she says she's found her mother's grave deteriorating faster than her father's, after spending long periods of time in an area that floods.

"I come here for comfort," Boudreau said. "There is no comfort. Not to see my mom underwater. I think we need some answers."

These cemeteries have something in common: they're owned by StoneMor Partners, a funeral home company. It's the second largest network of cemeteries and funeral homes in the country.

"I gave them my mom and dad to take care of; the least they can do is respect that," Boudreau said.

The company owns more than 30 properties in the state of West Virginia, at least 10 in our area.

You may remember a story WSAZ did

at one of their properties in Glasgow.

After starting a Facebook group about the issues she was dealing with, Abbett learned she wasn't alone.

"Everyone's life matters," she said. "I don't care who it is, whether it's my mother or someone else's father or mother or loved one."

Laura Campbell's brother passed away in 2013, and he was buried at Highland Memory Gardens in Logan County. As a veteran, they wanted to honor him in the best way possible. Unfortunately, the experience was anything but restful.

"You want it to be as peaceful as possible. For a lot of families, this company has made it very difficult," Campbell said.

So they made the emotionally challenging and financially difficult decision to move him elsewhere.

"In the end, we made the decision to exhume him and move him to another family-owned cemetery. We haven't regretted it since," Campbell said.

Members of the Facebook group, like Jo Ellen Tinsley-Blair, invited WSAZ to come see for ourselves the conditions they were dealing with. Several arrived armed with cleaning supplies to take matters in their own hands.

"While they're not physically here on this earth to be loved anymore," said Tinsley-Blair, "their memory is here and this is their memorial, and it's where you come to grieve."

WSAZ was only onsite about 15 minutes when we were asked to leave the property and given a number for corporate representatives. We continued the conversation on the side of Interstate 64.

"My dad would have a fit if he knew this was going on now," Tinsley-Blair said.

According to Jan, after we were asked to leave, the men began speaking with some of the families, writing down concerns with promises to address the issues. She then launched a Facebook Live video to catch members of the group up to speed.

Terry and Kim Scarberry lost their son in 2017 and say it's only been trouble and heartache since.

"That's my baby over there, the water and the mud that we have to tread," Kim Scarberry said.

Kim worries that once she's gone, she and her loved ones won't be cared for.

"To think that when something happens to me and him, our son will be forgotten," Scarberry said.

Donna Lewis used to bring her mother to visit Donna's father and brother, both buried at White Chapel. She tells WSAZ, she dreads it every time and usually leaves more upset than when she arrived. On Memorial Day, her mother, who has been visiting the cemetery since the 80s, told her she didn't want to come back until she had to.

"When we got ready to leave she said 'well boys, I guess it won't be long till I have to lay down here with you,'" Lewis said. "That's sad. Nobody 87 years old should only have that to look forward to. It rips your heart out."

After speaking with these families and receiving dozens of emails on the matter, we took their concerns straight to StoneMor.

Glen Rinkowski, area vice president, said he is aware of the issues, but the families say until we showed up at one of the cemeteries, they've never seen any work toward fixing the problems.

StoneMor declined an on-camera interview but provided a statement over the phone that we could copy down and share.

"We are aware of the issues with the mausoleum at White Chapel, we apologize for any inconvenience or distress this has caused our families. We have committed to a contractor and will begin addressing the roof. Once the roof is complete we will address the inside of the mausoleum. We are also actively working on cleaning and leveling the markers in the cemetery. We are committed to working diligently to making this happen as quickly as possible." -- Glen Rinkowski, Area Vice President.

When we asked about problems at other cemeteries, he said he would get back to us.

Another concern is upkeep. Group members are wondering about the perpetual care fund their families paid into. It's a trust set up to repair and maintain cemetery grounds, including things like landscaping and lawncare.

In April, StoneMor entered into a Master Services Agreement with Moon Landscaping, to provide property management and even leased their equipment to the landscaping company.

We reached out Moon Landscaping to see about maintenance at our local cemeteries, but we haven't heard back.

According to the agreement, the implementation is expected by the end of July.

StoneMor estimates this will save them about 10 to 15 percent a year on maintenance costs.

"I want it to be perfect," Abbett said. "She loved me when nobody else did. She was my number one fan."

These families are also struggling with their own, now uncertain future.

"I was never one who considered cremation," said Lewis. "I was never one who considered a mausoleum, but I'm telling you they look better and better all the time."

Many have plots at these properties and don't want to leave their family to rest alone, but also don't want to be an added burden to their surviving relatives.

"It hurts, it hurts really bad," Scarberry said. "I think about that all the time."

Members of the group tell NewsChannel 3's Kelsey Souto they want to see improvements, including more consideration of those who are buried there and those who visit, seeking out moments of peace and a place to properly mourn their loss.

"We had no choice," Boudreau said. "We are the voice of our loved ones now."

A promise from them all, to make sure the memory of their loved one, isn't marked like this ever again.

"They're not going to rest in peace until this is taken care of," Abbett said. "That's when you feel like your loved ones resting in peace. I'm not going to stop until I see that everyone is."

StoneMor was

by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in December of 2019 for making misstatements in financial documents, they were fined $250,000.

In

the Pennsylvania based company settled with the Attorney General's office there for deceptive ad practices. $25,000 going to victims, another $25,000 going to the state.

"I don't know how a company can do that and lay their heads down at night," Abbett said.

StoneMor was given an F rating by the Better Business Bureau and racked up more than 100 complaints in the last three years.

The consumer protection division of the West Virginia Attorney General's Office has received 20 complaints regarding StoneMor since Nov. 20, 2015.

Any consumers with questions or concerns can contact the consumer protection hotline, where they can receive further information and potentially file a consumer complaint. The hotline can be reached at (800) 368-8808.

The Facebook group says they hope to meet monthly to visit and clean gravesites.

StoneMor Properties in our area:

Sunset Memorial Park, South Charleston

Grandview Memorial Park, Dunbar

Forest Memorial Park, Milton

Highland Memory Gardens, Chapmanville

Kanawha Valley Memorial Gardens, Glasgow

Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens, Huntington

Floral Hill Garden of Memories, Sissonville

Fairview Memory Gardens, Hamlin

Spring Valley Memory Gardens, Huntington

Valley View Memorial Park, Hurricane

White Chapel Memorial Gardens, Barboursville

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