Funeralgate fades away

Funeralgate fades away

By Joe Baker

By Joe Baker

Senior Editor

While the nation is focused on the bizarre and shocking findings at a Georgia crematorium., an even gorier and more disgusting scandal has slipped quietly into history.

The scandal surfaced during the presidential campaign of 2001 but was hardly noticed by the national media. It was dubbed “Funeralgate” and took place in Florida.

Funeralgate involved a company called Service Corporation International or SBI. It is the largest cemetery company and owns more than 300 funeral homes and cemeteries across the country. Among them are Sunset Memorial Gardens, 8800 N. Alpine Road, and Rosman, Uehling, Kinzer Cranston Funeral Home, 1125 Cranston Road in Beloit, Wis.

In a lawsuit filed at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attorneys charged the Menorah Gardens and Funeral Chapels in West Palm Beach and its owner, SCI, with recycling graves and tossing burial vaults and human remains into a nearby woods to make space available for new burials.

The attorneys presented documents in court that showed the Florida funeral home and Houston-based SCI were aware of the practice. Ten families charged their deceased family members were dug up at two Jewish cemeteries and dumped in the woods, or were buried in the wrong graves or were buried one atop the other instead of side by side.

SCI-owned cemeteries in south Florida are under investigation by the attorney general of the state. His office said a class- action lawsuit in the case may involve more than 1,000 people.

One woman, Myra Stone of Lake Worth, Fla. said her parents bought adjacent graves in 1982. Her father died in 1994, but a stranger was buried next to him in her mother’s grave. When her mother died in 2000, she said cemetery operators dug up the man’s grave and threw most of his remains in the woods.

“I understand some of his remains are still in her grave,” Stone said. “I am just horrified.”

Co-counsel Neal Hirschfeld commented: “We’ve investigated allegations that we thought too heinous to be accurate, too horrible to be true, over the last several years.”

SCI’s business practices in Texas made the news in December 2001 and saw then Governor (now President) George W. Bush, and Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), implicated in the scandal.

Bush was subpoenaed in 1999 in connection with a lawsuit brought by Eliza May, former director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission. May was fired from her position when she refused to halt her investigation of SCI. Bush was to testify as to why he obstructed May’s investigation of the company for using unlicensed embalmers and other alleged violations of Texas law.

SCI is owned by Robert Waltrip, a long-time friend of Bush’s father, George H. Bush. Waltrip, according to a company spokesman, gave $45,000 to the younger Bush’s 1994 re-election campaign for governor through his political action committee.

Texas Judge John Dietz ruled Bush could not be compelled to testify and tossed out a subpoena which called for Bush to give a deposition in the case. The judge said May failed to bring enough evidence to show that Bush had “unique and superior personal knowledge” that would aid her case.

Waltrip and his company were fined $450,000 for the statutory violations and are fighting the assessment. He admits complaining to Bush aides about the fine.

Waltrip met with Joe Allbaugh in April 1998, according to The Washington Post. The paper said Bush looked in on the meeting and asked Waltrip if “those people” were still “messing with you.” Bush denied saying that and claimed he said: “Are people still messing with you?”

May brought suit against the funeral service commission, Waltrip and SCI. She requested a jury trial and asked for exemplary damages from Waltrip and his company. She asked for back pay from the state of Texas plus mental anguish costs. She did not specify the amount of damages sought from Waltrip. Her lawyers estimated she might get $500,000 from the state.

SCI spokesman Bill Miller commented: “I cannot conceive that the lawsuit has any merit.”

In November 2001, Texas Gov. Rick Perry approved a settlement of the lawsuit. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported the amount of the settlement was $210,000. SCI was to pay $55,000 with the state paying the remainder.

May’s attorney, Derek Howard, told The Associated Press: “We’re glad the lawsuit has been settled.” He said that under terms of the settlement, he could not comment further, but he did add that the state admitted no wrongdoing.

Meantime, the state of Florida said it may soon file a lawsuit against SCI after its investigation of unfair and deceptive trade practices charges is completed.

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