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Foley asks for federal inquiry into cemetery allegations

Saturday, December 22, 2001

Associated Press

WEST PALM BEACH — U.S. Rep. Mark Foley asked federal officials Friday to investigate "sickening" claims against a cemetery company accused of desecrating graves.

Foley, R-Fla., sent letters to the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission asking the agencies to determine whether Menorah Gardens and its Houston-based parent company, Service Corporation International, had violated federal laws.

"These allegations have created both shock and despair in my district, as well as the nation as a whole," Foley wrote. "If proven true, it would undermine an entire industry that is designed to foster trust in those who are in times of grief."

He also mailed a letter to state Attorney General Bob Butterworth that asked if Florida had sufficient oversight of the funeral industry and whether new laws are needed.

"Is somebody keeping up with compliance, is anybody going to these sites to look at these business practices, are they investigating?" Foley said.

In response to a lawsuit filed against Menorah Gardens this week, Butterworth's office is investigating the cemetery and four others owned by SCI in South Florida for deceptive and unfair trade practices.

Butterworth's office has issued subpoenas for burial records at the cemeteries.

SCI, the world's largest cemetery company with 3,851 funeral homes and cemeteries worldwide, said it is investigating the case.

The allegations "are completely contrary to our policies and procedures as well as to the excellent performance record we have established," said Jerald L. Pullins, SCI president and chief operating officer.

The class-action lawsuit alleges Menorah Gardens was plotted incorrectly and plots were oversold. To cover up the errors, the cemetery recycled graves by digging up and breaking open burial vaults and throwing them, along with the coffins and bodies inside, into the woods on the edge of the graveyard, the suit charges.

The cemetery also allegedly crushed down vaults to make room for new sales, buried people in the wrong graves and buried spouses on top of each other instead of side by side.

Attorneys said hundreds of bodies could be missing. They are asking the court to account for the bodies and determine, possibly by exhumation to collect DNA or forensic evidence, whether people were buried in the plots they purchased.

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