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Trial in lawsuit alleging mishandled burials at Galilee Memorial set to begin

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FILE - In this May 25, 2015, file photo, people visit Galilee Memorial Gardens cemetery near Memphis, Tenn. The Tennessee cemetery where caskets were crushed and stacked, remains were mishandled and bodies were lost, remains closed. But the dispute about who is to blame for the problems at the burial ground is still alive. Opening statements are scheduled Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018, in the trial pitting relatives of about 1,200 dead people against funeral homes accused of sending bodies to Galilee after the cemetery lost its registration in December 2010. (AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht, File)

BARTLETT, Tenn. — Galilee Memorial Gardens, the Tennessee cemetery where caskets were crushed and stacked, remains were mishandled and bodies were lost, remains closed.

But the dispute about who should pay for the problems at the burial ground in the Memphis suburb of Bartlett is alive and active.

Opening statements are scheduled Tuesday in the class-action trial pitting relatives of about 1,200 dead people against licensed funeral homes accused of sending bodies to Galilee for three years after the cemetery’s registration expired in December 2010.

The lawsuit claims more than a dozen Memphis-area funeral homes failed to carry out their “sacred and contractual duties” for vulnerable, mourning relatives who expected their loved ones to be interred with dignity.

Investigations have revealed that Galilee’s owners, the Lambert family, misplaced hundreds of bodies, buried multiple cadavers in the same grave, and crushed caskets to fit them into single plots for years. The funeral homes kept sending bodies to Galilee until the cemetery was closed in 2014, the lawsuit claims.

Mishandling of remains would not have occurred if a licensed funeral director had supervised burials, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit seeks damages likely ranging into the millions of dollars — if a jury sides with the families.

“They turned their backs on the bodies that were entrusted to them,” plaintiff’s lawyer Kathryn Barnett said of the funeral homes. “They just walked away.”

In court filings, the funeral homes deny allegations of breach of contract, negligence and infliction of emotional distress. They claim they did not violate customers’ contracts and did not have a contractual relationship with Galilee. The funeral homes argue they had no duty to monitor Galilee’s licensure and they are not liable for the cemetery’s actions.

Jemar Lambert, who took over the cemetery’s operations after his father died, received 10 years’ probation in a plea deal with state prosecutors for his role in the mishandling of burials. He left behind disorganized records, an investigation by the state Department of Commerce & Insurance, and families who don’t know where their loved ones are buried.

Galilee is also a defendant in the lawsuit. It is currently under receivership.

Former Congressman Harold Ford Sr., who is majority owner of defendant N.J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home, said his business is not liable because state regulators and Galilee did not notify his funeral home that the cemetery’s registration had expired.

“If the state had told us, we would have notified families not to go there,” said Ford, who served in the U.S. House from 1974 to 1996. “We did not know that the cemetery was not operating properly.”

The Galilee case also exposed a lack of regulation and state oversight of privately-owned cemeteries and funeral homes. The Federal Trade Commission enforces the “funeral rule,” which allows consumers to pick and choose only those goods and services they want or need, rather than accept a package of services that includes options they may not want.

But oversight of the death industry is largely left up to states, which typically require funeral homes and cemeteries to be licensed and establish a complaint process. But, according to experts, states fall short of detailed oversight, such as regular on-site inspections of cemeteries.

“It’s just not something that is easy to get lawmakers or regulators to take seriously, consistently,” said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

Nationally, lawsuits have been filed and charges pursued over mismanaged cemeteries, with accusations of unmarked graves, burial urns unearthed and dumped, and vaults broken to make room for more remains.

Barnett, of the Morgan & Morgan law firm, says funeral homes around the country “will be watching this, because it matters.”

Many who signed contracts with the funeral homes sought to use life insurance to pay for affordable services. Akilah Louise Wofford was one of them.

Wofford acknowledged in a deposition that she did not closely read her contract with M.J. Edwards & Sons Funeral Home after her father suddenly died of a heart attack in his yard. Her main concern was “just staying within the budget” of about $5,000, the deposition states.

She said a man with the funeral home recommended where to bury her father.

“Anybody involved in making the arrangements for a person’s loved one or family member that’s passed away that you really care about, you entrust that they’re going to handle everything properly,” Wofford said in the deposition. “It’s something that happened so fast, and I didn’t want to face the fact that my father had died.”

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