Dad was buried in an unmarked grave—this despite preplanning his burial in 1990 and a $20,000 funeral. How this surprising indignity can occur–to ANY of us–is rooted in the growing national trend of out-of-state publicly-traded for-profit holding companies buying historically non-profit community cemeteries. Regulations, meant to protect consumers during their most vulnerable time after the death of a loved one, have not kept up with the rapid changes of the death-care industry.
Are you “financially ambitious” with a “competitive spirit” and want “unlimited earning potential”?
A job working with grieving families is for you!
Wayne Memorial Park is a perpetual care cemetery located in the rural farming community of Dudley, North Carolina. The property is an ideal spot to watch military jets fly low overhead as the property lies directly at the end of the runway for Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, NC. Due to the proximity to a large military base, the cemetery is a popular final resting place for Veterans and their families as well as the community’s predominant farming and blue-collar residents.
Founded in 1948, the cemetery underwent many changes in ownership over the years, but it was not until 1996 that non-local management took control of the property when Wayne Memorial Park, Inc merged with Townson-Rose Funeral Home and Forsyth Memorial Park and became SCI North Carolina Funeral Services.
In 2007, StoneMor Partners L.P., a publicly traded company founded in 2004 and headquartered in Trevose, Pennsylvania, obtained a license from the NC Secretary of State to begin doing business in North Carolina. Two years earlier, local tax records show Wayne Memorial Park was one of their acquisitions, purchased in 2005 for $1,013,500 under the entity StoneMor North Carolina LLC whose state filings show no principal office in the state with StoneMor’s Pennsylvania officers and address.
StoneMor Partners L.P. has grown quickly by acquiring properties—today they own 316 cemeteries and 105 funeral homes in 28 states and Puerto Rico. The company’s stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker id STON. Securities and Exchange Commission filings (FORM 10-K/A) for the last fiscal year available online, 2015, show $319 million in annual revenue, $202 million of which was earned in the sale of cemetery merchandise and services.
Nineteen of StoneMor’s cemeteries are located in North Carolina including the large historic Montlawn Memorial Park in Raleigh, purchased in 2014 for $8 million. NC properties include:
- Alamance Memorial Park, Burlington, NC
- Carolina Biblical Gardens of Guilford, Jamestown, NC
- Chatham Memorial Park, Siler City, NC
- Crestview Memorial Park, Rural Hall, NC
- Floral Garden Park Cemetery, High Point, NC
- Lakeview Memorial Park, Greensboro, NC
- Martin Memorial Gardens, Williamston, NC
- Montlawn Memorial Park, Raleigh, NC
- Mountlawn Memorial Park, North Wilkesboro, NC
- Oakhill Memorial Park, Kinston, NC
- Oaklawn Memorial Gardens, Winston-Salem, NC
- Pinelawn Memorial Park, Kinston, NC
- Randolph Memorial Park, Asheboro, NC
- Rowan Memorial Park, Salisbury, NC
- Skyline Memory Garden, Mount Airy, NC
- Wayne Memorial Park, Dudley, NC
- West Lawn Memorial Park, China Grove, NC
- Woodlawn Memorial Park, Durham, NC
- York Memorial Park, Charlotte, NC
Managing visitor’s grief experience
Wayne Memorial Park in Dudley, NC contains 40 acres of grounds with graves going back to 1948. After StoneMor’s purchase in 2005 for $1,013,500, small changes began to be noticed by visitors to the cemetery.
- Temporary grave markers are banned. The perpetual care cemetery neither places nor allows placement of temporary markers on the day of burial to designate where human remains are interred. The markers, designed of a material to last only 60-90 days until a permanent marker could be in place, were traditionally placed after the grave was covered at the conclusion of burial by local funeral homes as part of their funeral services. This practice is no longer permitted. A ‘keepsake marker’ is now pitched to families as an alternative to an unmarked grave; it can only be purchased from 1 source–the cemetery–at 1 price point and takes 2 weeks to install. Because some families cannot afford a permanent marker nor choose not to purchase the ‘keepsake’, many graves now go unmarked forever.
- Tents over graves, which had previously been kept up for 5 days, are removed even before the last mourner leaves the graveside service. Tent use after a service’s conclusion were banned out of ‘liability concerns’.
- Flowers placed by mourners are aggressively removed and the company’s own silk flower arrangements pitched to families as more tasteful alternatives.
- The scheduling of burial services in the cemetery are more tightly controlled, with hard limits on the number of services occurring on the property per day and their times with no graves permitted to be opened on weekends or holidays. A Monday burial is possible only if the management receives notification in writing by 1pm on Friday.
- The overall appearance of the property has diminished: The grass covering the graves slowly turned to weeds and bare ground appeared. This is fertile farming community with good growing soil.
- Consumers and deed holders are not able to obtain a written copy of the current cemetery policies and prices upon request.
Family Service Counselors or Sales Representatives?
Most disturbing of the changes were in the interactions between grieving consumers and cemetery staff, now motivated by commission-only income and sales quotas. (see job ad). Although the company, for all it’s cemeteries nationwide, posts job recruitment ads for “sales representative”, the persons employed in these sales positions provide families with business cards identifying their position as “Family Service Counselor”. No mention of their role in sales is provided to consumers nor are families told they are not salaried employees and earn commission-only. A search for ‘family service counselor’ on the StoneMor ‘careers’ website returns no results and redirects to the ‘sales representative’ positions, of which there are currently 93 vacancies nationwide.
What do full-time Family Service Counselors from 20 different StoneMor owned cemeteries say about their work? In their own words:
“You’re not a counselor, this is a sales role in the death care industry.”
“You are made to lie, and cheat customers and in their own words “prey on the emotions” when someone just died. Create the urgency!! is the motto.”
“Forget the legal aspects of customer service, forget actually caring for families who have lost loved ones and are grieving, they need stuff and you had better sell it to them.”
“They want you to bring up past death experiences with families to make them feel guilty about not pre-planning for their families. It’s all about the money.”
“The company is less about the families we are servicing and more about meeting numbers.”
“Tells you to put family first but only cares about profit unless there is the chance of lawsuit!”
“concern is only for “the sale” and how to manipulate any and all into a purchase”
“you don’t get paid unless you make a sale”
“Commission only!…The “leads” were going through family members of people buried in the cemetery”
“Money hungry! And will say and do whatever necessary to get it out of families!”
“Unethical means of generating leads.”
“the atmosphere was predatory”
“Vultures….Let us circle the dead and pick the families wallets clean..If you do not do this you are not considered worth their time.”
“location manager don’t care about families, all they want is the sales… even if the families are having money problems.”
“They mark the memorials up 350%. You heard that right. Ripping people off at a time of desperate need.”
“The operating Officials should spend a day in an office. They should also experience a death. This industry has to change. I feel very sad for the communities that have to deal with the steady rule changes and never having a steady friendly face.”
“Issues needing to be resolved are put on the back burner as selling pre-need is “more important” – according to management.”
“business model is based on outdated vacuum sales tactics that are to be expected on a car lot and not in a cemetery.”
“If you’re gullible, you may even trick yourself into thinking you are helping people”
“I have heard more complaints from families than praise”
-former full-time StoneMor Family Service Counselors Source: Glassdoor, Inc. job recruitment company reviews Source link
My family’s experience: death is only the beginning
My Dad passed away suddenly on May 12, 2017. While he had fought lung cancer for 2 ½ years, he did not die following a long-goodbye from the cancer itself. He unexpectedly developed a pulmonary hemorrhage (bleeding in the lung). It was sudden. It was traumatic. Just moments before his passing, Dad was well enough that doctors were planning a transfer for later in the day out of UNC Hospital’s ICU to a ‘step-down’ room with preparations already underway for eventual discharge home. So as a family, we were totally unprepared to say goodbye when he passed away unexpectedly in ICU at 3pm on a Friday afternoon.
When a loved one dies, there is little time to grieve before having to jump into making funeral arrangement decisions. We fortunately contacted a wonderful funeral director who provided truly outstanding care to my family during this difficult time. The funeral home was professional, compassionate and flawless in the services they provided.
I understand that the funeral business is indeed a business—every business must make a profit. Dad was a businessman too, so he would have understood that also. The compassionate manner in which the funeral home conducted necessary business was in such a way that it did not feel like ‘just business’—we were never pressured and the pricing of products and services were fully transparent in writing, with multiple options and price-points to choose from. My mother and I were empowered by the funeral home to be in control of all decisions. It is the way a business which touches consumers at the saddest and weakest moment of their lives should operate.
To make things easiest on us so we’d only need to write one check afterwards, we asked the funeral home to pay all outside vendors on our behalf and we’d reimburse—such as the cemetery’s fees for digging the grave, newspaper ad costs for the obituary, Register of Deeds fee for obtaining certified copies of the death certificate, etc. No fees were added on to provide this convenience for us. When we left the funeral home meeting after making Dad’s arrangements, we anticipated no additional monies to be paid.
Burial plot: Where raw grief met corporate greed
Since Dad died on a Friday afternoon, my mother and I had originally hoped for a Monday or Tuesday funeral at the latest, but it became clear this would not be possible. While we met with the funeral director on Saturday less than 24 hours after Dad died, the cemetery was unavailable to meet with us until Monday at 11 AM.
My parents paid $2,070 in April 1990 for 6 connecting burial plots in Wayne Memorial Park. The deed was issued at a time before StoneMor Partners L.P. owned the cemetery, when the cemetery was owned by Wayne Memorial Park, Inc. At the time of Dad’s passing, we were unaware the cemetery had changed ownership.
Our ‘pre-burial meeting’ was with StoneMor’s Family Services Counselor. The purpose of the meeting, we thought, was to go out to the gravesite and indicate which of the 6 plots my family owns we wished to use for Dad’s interment. It was at this meeting, my mother and I learned that this perpetual care cemetery neither places nor allows placement of temporary markers on the day of burial to designate where human remains are interred.
We were shocked. The very idea of Dad being in an unmarked grave broke my heart in that moment. My mother was equally emotional. We knew we would eventually be purchasing a permanent granite and bronze marker for the grave—a double one large enough to cover both my mother & father’s plots. But such markers take 6-8 weeks to be made and installed from the time of order; and it is typically not an immediate decision at the time of a loved one’s death as families like to put some thought into the memorial and with costs ranging from $4,000-$8,000, it is an expense which must be budgeted.
But there was an interim alternative the cemetery offered. In the same meeting after my mom and I learned that Dad would be buried without any identification, we were given a sales pitch to purchase a ‘keepsake marker’ to be ordered and installed in an estimated 1-2 weeks after burial. The ‘keepsake marker’ is a small stone plaque measuring 10 inches by 6 inches with the decedent’s name & year of their birth & death (not full date) and no other personal information. It was available for purchase from the cemetery and to comply with their policy it could ONLY be purchased from the cemetery, at a cost of $176.14. Since it takes approximately 2 weeks to be installed, in the time between the burial & placement of the temporary keepsake marker there is nothing marking the grave. We were presented with 1 choice for a temporary marker…no other price points, styles or options to mark the grave until the permanent granite/bronze marker was installed months later.
The pitch on the temporary ‘keepsake marker’ was that this cost would be deducted from the permanent marker if it was purchased from them. The expensive permanent granite marker is not currently required to be purchased from the cemetery. Their starting costs are $4550 for what was described to us by the representative as a ‘basic’ marker going up to $8000+ range. If we choose not to purchase the permanent marker from them, then we are out the $176.14 plus they will then charge ~$200 ‘installation fee’ of the permanent marker, even though they do not actually install the marker themselves (our outside marker vendor would do that); the fee is merely to review the drawing, permit & manage the process. I say the cost is ‘around $200’ because I was unable to get an exact fee from the Family Service Counselor, who said a printed price list was not available due to the ‘variable nature of their products’.
I asked what happens to people who do not purchase the temporary ‘keepsake marker’—how do they locate their loved one’s grave in the future once the grass grows and it isn’t possible to tell a fresh grave had been dug. I was told ‘the family just has to know’ but that they could also pay the cemetery a ‘location fee’ to survey the lot again. They keep paper records of where burials occur, but do not physically/visually mark the location in any way.
On that day of the pre-burial meeting, still raw with grief my mother and I felt we had no choice but to purchase this temporary ‘keepsake marker’ because we couldn’t stand the thought of nothing at all marking Dad’s grave, even if only for a few weeks or months. Cost was not the issue, respect was.
From ancient times, a defining moment of civilization was when humans began to honor the dead. Marking graves is simply what generations have intuitively done as the first act of grief to demonstrate dignity and respect for the deceased.
We were limited by the cemetery on when we could bury Dad. He died on a Friday afternoon at 3pm at UNC Hospitals, located 2 hours away. The family preferred to schedule the funeral for the following Monday or Tuesday, but the cemetery said that if they weren’t notified by 1pm on Friday, they could not ‘open a grave’ on Monday. When I expressed our desire to not delay the burial, the Family Service Counselor twice indicated that we should have notified them before 1pm on Friday per policy if that was truly what we wanted and I kept replying…’but he didn’t die until 3pm!’
So due to their notification policy, we were unable to bury Dad on Monday. We were then unable to bury him on Tuesday because they limit the number of services which can take place each day and they were ‘already booked’ for Tuesday. So that left Wednesday as the only alternative. The day/time of Dad’s funeral was entirely driven by when the cemetery said it could be done and not when the funeral home, minister, musician, florists were available or when the family wanted. The family of the deceased had to meet the cemetery’s needs, not the other way around.
My Dad was buried on Wednesday, May 17. My mother and I planned for Dad a lovely graveside service. He loved flowers–yellow was his favorite color so we ordered a casket spray filled with beautiful yellow flowers. Dad knew many people having been in the refrigeration and electrical business for over 40 years and was active in a large antique tractor club. Many of his long-time customers and tractor-club friends also sent arrangements. Over $1,500 in fresh flowers from the family alone covered his grave.
A tent over the grave was erected the day of the funeral—it was the first 90-degree day of the year and the shade protected not only the mourners but also the flowers. The funeral home’s practice is to leave the tent up for 5 days to both mark and protect the fresh grave and it serves to shield the flowers from the wilting sun. However, the cemetery bans this practice. Before the last of the mourners left the service, cemetery staff began taking down the tent and closing the grave.
I was told the restriction was for liability reasons, in case someone got hurt. Yet I couldn’t square this logic since the tent was in place during the service when the greatest number of people were around it. Over 200 people signed the register at Dad’s funeral with most standing around the tent for the burial and with 30 family members seated in chairs directly under the tent. The time of greatest liability was during the service, not in the days afterward when there would be only the occasional family visitor to the grave.
A clean, unmarked grave
When my family returned 2 hours after the conclusion of the funeral, following interment, the tent was gone and there was nothing marking the grave except the mound of beautiful flowers.
The ‘keepsake marker’ would not be installed for 1-2 weeks we were told. It felt wrong there was nothing with Dad’s name, but at least the flowers were there to indicate where his grave was.
Yet, that also was not to be for long. When family visited the cemetery on Friday late morning, less than 48 hours after burial, all flowers had been removed. The grave had been raked clean. No flowers. No marker. No name. Nothing at all to indicate whose grave it was or that a burial had taken place. It broke our hearts yet again. We were unable to take any clippings from the flowers or ribbons to preserve as mementos. All that money, all that love invested in choosing the perfect way to honor my dad…gone in less than 48 hours after the service. What a waste. And for what reason I cannot imagine to know. The flowers would not have died that quickly.
Unknown to me at the time, one of my Dad’s sisters was so moved that she called the cemetery to complain when she saw the unmarked grave. She spoke with a manager who confirmed the removal of the tent was policy and indicated she would speak with ‘higher-ups’ about changing the timing of flower removals.
On the Tuesday following burial, my Dad’s temporary ‘keepsake marker’ was installed. It was chipped during installation, but I did not mention it because I did not dare risk removal. So my Dad’s grave now at least has a name, albeit the feeling I’m left with is hollow. He deserved so much more respect in death than he was shown…any one does. He was a husband, father, grandfather, and brother….he was loved. And it is the people who loved him who visit the cemetery. It is the people who loved him on both sides of my family tree who also have grave plots purchased in this same cemetery…it has over the years become the final resting spot for all the people I hold near and dear. But it can now never feel the same and there is no reason for this change of heart other than simple corporate greed.
What are the rules and regulations governing the for-profit cemetery industry? Read on.
Written policies and prices lacking
At our ‘pre-burial meeting’ and in subsequent emails, I asked for written cemetery policies and price lists. I was told I could get a copy of the policies at our ‘after-care appointment’. The purpose of such a meeting was puzzling to my family since after burial, there should be no further need for the consumer to sit down and meet with a cemetery representative. Consumers are pressured to return for an in-person ‘after care’ appointment which can have no role after burial except to serve as an opportunity to market their permanent markers, which currently can be purchased from any vendor, not just the cemetery.
Indeed at my family’s after-care meeting, we were pitched markers starting with a ‘basic model’ at $4,550 going up to $8,000 for more elaborate markers which we were told were of better quality and durability.
I was provided—6 days after the burial and 11 after he died and we began making arrangements–a 47-page document detailing the cemetery’s policies. However, it was dated 2002—five years before the company was licensed to do business in NC and when the cemetery was under different ownership. The 2002 document has no mention of current polices pertaining to temporary markers, ‘keepsake makers’, tents or funeral flower removal. I have been unable to get such current policies or pricing in writing. I have begun to suspect such written policies do not exist—if so, then as a consumer, I have not been able to obtain a copy easily and upon request, as (my understanding) state statues require.
Laws and regulations
What does the law require of perpetual care cemeteries? Current rules and regulations were drafted during a time prior to the for-profit corporate transition of the cemetery industry and therefore do not fully address today’s practices.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates funeral homes to protect consumers. The Funeral Rule, enforced by FTC, makes it possible for families to choose only those goods and services needed and to pay only for those selected, whether making arrangements when a death occurs or in advance. The Rule allows for easy price comparison among funeral homes, and makes it possible to better select the funeral arrangements wanted. However, the Funeral Rule does NOT apply to third-party sellers, such as casket and monument dealers, or to cemeteries that lack an on-site funeral home. In recent years, the FTC has expressed a desire to extend the Rule to cemeteries, but so far this has not happened and it is unclear the current administration’s view expanding federal authority.
At the state level, cemeteries operate under a myriad of rules. In North Carolina, perpetual care cemeteries, including Wayne Memorial Park, are overseen by the NC Cemetery Commission, created under the main legislation governing cemeteries, The NC Cemetery Act aka Article 9, Chapter 65. The 9 member Cemetery Commission is appointed by the Governor and the General Assembly; 7 of the members represent the cemetery industry and hold financial interests in cemetery and funeral related businesses, 2 appointees represent the public.
In the Act, there are provisions that a cemetery cannot force a family to purchase vaults and caskets from the cemetery, but there is nothing about temporary markers. (At least none which I could find in the regulations, but keep in mind I am not a lawyer and there are no ‘consumer guides’ published by the Commission to interpret the law in simple terms for consumers) The omission of temporary markers may be an oversight as it seems with the Act, the General Assembly was trying to prevent families from being preyed upon during times of grief with the casket, vault and permanent marker provisions, and if this is the case, it should also be extended to temporary markers. The statutes were likely written in an era before for-profit corporations began purchasing nonprofit and community cemeteries. Plus, I suspect it was understood to be simple common sense that it was desirable to mark a grave temporarily.
Needed changes to cemetery industry regulations
Since my Dad’s funeral, people in the community have shared stories with me of graves being sold twice and family members going to bury a loved one only to find the plot long held already occupied. As I have no first-hand experience with this, I cannot comment on its accuracy, although I have 100% faith in the integrity of the people who shared those stories. What I can comment on is my first-hand experience, as detailed above. That alone should be cause for alarm.
To be clear: While my mother and I were obviously disturbed when we encountered the cemetery’s practices, we at no time acted irate, irrational or even raised our voices. Rather, we cried. The days after my Dad’s unexpected death were ones of overwhelming sadness and this experience added to that feeling of being overwhelmed by events beyond our control. Our interactions with cemetery staff have all been respectful and professional as we’ve expressed our concerns and unhappiness…this is in part, because that’s the sort of professional minded business people we are, and in part, because we do fear being banned by the cemetery from visiting our family’s graves. I don’t know if they have the power to do this, but I suspect this fear is what keeps many in the community from speaking out. In addition to my Dad, my grandparents are also buried there and aunts and uncles on both sides of my family have plots there—this cemetery years ago became our family’s choice of a final resting spot. I try to always be polite to people and separate the policy from the person…I appreciate that perhaps the staff at the cemetery are simply doing their jobs enforcing corporate policy passed down from elsewhere. I have no way to know who, or where, policy decisions are made. I just know they are bad ones. With that in mind….
As a consumer, my concerns are:
- That human remains are not marked. This is standard practice at this cemetery. Temporary markers are banned and if a family does not choose to purchase the one-option ‘keepsake marker’ or a permanent granite marker, the grave will forever go unmarked. This goes against the very philosophy behind a perpetual care cemetery and against the societal custom of marking a grave out of respect for the deceased as as part of the grieving process for the family. I can’t imagine persons who purchase plots years in advance would assume they would be in an unmarked grave…even if only for a few days. They likely assumed this was part of the price they paid or if not, that such a basic thing certainly wouldn’t be banned. Respect and comfort to the family requires at least a name on a grave. Many plots are also current and retired Veteran’s burials due to the proximity to a major Air Force base.
- The temporary ‘keepsake marker’ could only be purchased from the cemetery and there was only one option and price point.
- That this came up only immediately after a death during a time of great emotional upheaval for the family who thought all had been arranged with no decisions to make or money to pay. Deed holders should be kept apprised of changes in policies, changes in ownership and given opportunity for public comment.
- That consumers and deed holders are not able to easily obtain a written copy of the cemetery policies and prices—I asked for copies multiple times, in writing also, in advance of the burial. I was only able to obtain an outdated copy from a time before the company even owned the cemetery and then that was provided 11 days after the death.
- Whose policies govern whether graves must be marked & limit temporary markers to a sole source? In our meetings, the representative for the cemetery kept referring to the need to adhere to ‘the policies’ and I cannot get clarified WHOSE policies so I know who to appeal or complain to—is this state law, Cemetery Commission, FTC, corporate rules etc. I was told I could complain about the policies in an after-care survey…which when I received it, the return address for the survey goes to the cemetery office in Dudley to the very people whose work I have concerns about, so I’m confident that survey will never be passed higher up the chain of corporate leaders. I don’t know what recourse I as a consumer have to question or help change the practices.
- The State of NC statues need to be revised to clearly include temporary markers in the code.
- The Federal Trade Commission needs to expand the Funeral Rule to include cemeteries. Currently they only regulate cemeteries who also own a funeral home on the cemetery property.
- There needs to be greater consumer protections via regulation of the cemetery industry, similar to that which already exists in the funeral home industry.
A plea for common sense decency
I am unclear if the practices and policies of this particular cemetery and its corporate parent are legal or not…I do hope someone more legally savvy than myself will know. If the practice and policy I’ve described are indeed legal, then it certainly isn’t ethical.
This is a farming, blue-collar community with many military and retired military residents. Many citizens are on fixed incomes. Hitting up grieving widows, widowers and families at the time of bereavement for an overpriced temporary marker which can only be purchased from a single source or else the loved one’s grave will go un-marked is wrong. Quickly removing the tent and the flowers placed by mourners on the grave is wrong. The intent behind a family choosing a perpetual care cemetery is that they want a grave to be properly recorded and cared for long into the future. They desire it to look nice and honor the memory of their loved one. That today there can exist unmarked graves in our state’s perpetual care cemeteries is an abomination and an affront to the hardworking consumers who chose this product as their final resting place.
While bringing to light what happened to my family will not change the hurt inflicted upon us, it is my hope it may prevent it from continuing to happen in the future. I call upon the NC General Assembly, the NC Cemetery Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to more closely regulate perpetual care cemeteries and protect consumers. I stand ready to testify what I have detailed above to be true. This I do to honor my Dad.
Knowledge empowers. Action transforms.
Bad things continue to happen when good people do nothing.
Examples of unmarked graves: