Families pin blame on funeral directors as Galilee cemetery trial begins

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Dozens of family members and a jury listened to opening statements Tuesday by attorneys representing the family members of about 1,200 people buried at Galilee Memorial Gardens in a lawsuit.

In 2014, bodies were found at the Bartlett cemetery buried haphazardly, sometimes with multiple bodies stacked and crushed in the same grave.

Attorneys for the family members told the jury it's the funeral directors of various funeral homes that should be held accountable.

"The funeral director walked away and turned his back and left these remains in a place of utter disrespect," said attorney Kathryn Barnett.

They said the funeral directors broke the rules of licensed professionals by taking advantage of people in a vulnerable time, didn't wait the extra 30 minutes to actually see a casket be lowered into the ground and didn't look to see Galilee did not have registration for three years while these awful actions were happening.

Finally, they said the funeral homes refuse to take any responsibility at all.

"It's about respect for your loved one. It's about respect for the families who trust you," attorneys said.

Two attorneys out of the two dozen or so that were in the courtroom representing the area funeral homes gave their opening statements, saying words matter — and that the attorneys for the plaintiffs are doing that using words and phrases like "loved ones abandoned" to play on emotions.

John Branson, representing  M.J. Edwards Funeral Home, said there is no evidence of a larger scheme and much of the blame should fall on the state.

"What the plaintiffs, the families are trying to get you to do is stick what Galilee did on the funeral homes, which did not do it," Branson said. "What they say is somehow the funeral homes should've stopped Galilee from doing what they were doing. The funeral homes say they have no knowledge of it, had no way to know, no duty to know and no way to stop it."

The only witness to take the stand Tuesday is a licensed funeral director out of the Nashville area who testified it is the duty of the director to see the body be buried.

If the jury sides with families, the lawsuit seeks damages likely ranging into the millions of dollars.