Prepaid burial may exhume hidden costs

Leila Maschke believed her final expenses had been taken care of, so that her family would not have to bear the added burden at the time of her passing. In addition to prepayment of her funeral costs, Maschke prepaid the opening and closing costs of her final resting place in 1992, or so she thought.

Leila Maschke passed away March 1, 2006.

When Maschke’s bereaved sons, Bill and Byron, arrived at Willwood Burial Park to arrange interment, they were told a balance of $703.61 was due before their mother could be buried.

Mrs. Maschke’s sons showed Willwood Family Service Counselor Dan Dye a $350 canceled check and a receipt reflecting that no balance was due. Dye, however, produced a contract alleging the $350 was merely a partial payment.

The Maschkes asked Dye what the cost of opening and closing a grave in 1992 would have been. According to Bill, Dye was unable to produce a figure.

Documents for non-prepaid opening/closing at Willwood in 1992 show an amount of $445.

The Willwood contract, showing the same date as Maschke’s canceled check, was not signed by Mrs. Maschke. Instead, the buyer’s signature reads, “Leila Maschke by Sam Gayle.” When compared to her signature on the check, the contract endorsement is clearly not in Mrs. Maschke’s handwriting.

“He can’t do that. He can’t sign a contract for her,” argued son Bill. “You can’t take my mom’s check, give her a receipt saying ‘you owe us no money,’ then phony-up a document that you portend to be a legal document and expect me to pay for it.”

Maschke said he was told, “That’s the way they did business back then.”

Having little other choice in his family’s time of loss, Maschke cut Willwood a check for $703.61.

“It’s a one-sided scam,” Maschke alleged.

“For the rest of her life, she thinks everything is taken care of. She’s done a good thing for her children and grandchildren. And now, when she dies,” lamented Maschke, “she can’t complain.”

A week after laying her to rest, Bill and Byron visited their mother’s grave to place flowers for her birthday. The sons found the grave in disarray. Photos taken that day show 14 to 18 inches of space where dirt-fill should have been on top of the vault. Adding insult to injury, Leila’s headstone was found down in the grave.

Maschke said Willwood representatives told him the space was a result of “settling,” and the grave was later filled in properly.

In the weeks that followed, Maschke contacted the Illinois Comptroller’s Office, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the Illinois Cemetery Association to present his case. Since Willwood had a contract, albeit one not signed by Leila Maschke, little could be done on his behalf.

Jennifer Daughtry, operations assistant for the BBB, contacted Willwood manager Molly O’Keefe regarding Maschke’s complaint.

In a written response to Daughtry, O’Keefe stated: “You will see on the back of the contract line E. does state that ‘The partial payment for grave opening and closings shall be considered a deposit to be applied against the full cost of said service when rendered, and shall not be construed to be payment in full for said service.’”

When Maschke filed suit against Willwood owners Service Corporation International of Illinois (SCI), he objected to this contract being entered into evidence. SCI is one of the nation’s largest death-service corporations, with revenues exceeding $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2005.

“First off, I’ve never seen that [contract] until the day I went to the cemetery with the canceled check and the receipt,” Maschke argued in court. “I don’t think my mom ever saw this and, if you look at the bottom, you’ll see the signature is a forgery.”

Judge Patrick Heaslip agreed and ruled against SCI. According to Maschke, the judge told O’Keefe, had this been a criminal case rather than civil, somebody would be going to jail.

“The judge said, in short, forgery is forgery,” Maschke explained. “Unless you’ve got power of attorney, you can’t forge signatures on something you portend to be a legal document.”

Willwood has since repaid Maschke’s $703.61 plus court fees.

Neither O’Keefe nor SCI returned phone calls from The Rock River Times for comment prior to publication.

Although the actual funeral services were carried out faithfully by Olson Funeral Chapels, Maschke does not recommend prepayment.

“I’m not so sure prepayment is the way to go,” Maschke concluded, suggesting buyers need to keep every receipt to protect themselves and their families.

Has this happened to you? If so, contact The Rock River Times at 964-9767.

From the Nov. 29 – Dec. 5, 2006, issue

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