Monday, July 27, 2009

If It's Not BurrOak...Don't Fix It

As distasteful and horrifying as it is to contemplate, the 2 most recently reported cemetery scandals in IL are just the newest kids on a seemingly very large and polluted block. Quick review, Burr Oak Cemetery was the first major cemetery headline out of IL this month. Reportedly, after being tipped off by an employee who is reported to have known about the alleged practice of digging up caskets and either just tossing them into an adjacent lot or double stacking them into another plot, but reportedly came forward after he was threatened with being fired...the Cook County Sheriff's department now gets the honor of investigating about 5000 graves.

The second major cemetery headline in IL this month was that of Mt. Glenwood Cemetery, where a delivery driver reportedly found a bone in the storage area, which was determined by the Cook County Medical Examiner to be human.

Almost makes you forget about the bodies, both in caskets and cremated remains, found in the defunct Serenity Gardens Funeral Home in Gary, IN just a mere 2 months ago. You see, in the Gary case, while I certainly cannot speak for them, it seemingly never occurred to "regulators" that they might want to "regulate" and actually step foot into a funeral home after the owner's license was revoked.

Perhaps if the "regulators" in IL had "regulated", these outrageous atrocities possibly could have avoided...or at the very least limited in scope?

According to a rep from the IL Cemetery Care and Burial Trust Dept., it had received complaints on Burr Oak Cemetery in recent years, such as poor upkeep, sunken or tilting gravestones, unmanageable roads, drainage problems and tall weeks. And, both the Chicago and the Northern IL Better Business Bureaus gave Burr Oak Cemetery an "F" rating, with Steve Bernas, BBB President and CEO, being quoted in the Chicago Tribune as noting 5 complaints registered against Burr Oak Cemetery in the last 3 years. Personally, if true as reported by various sources, that might be enough to spark a "hmmm" moment in the mind of regulators. If not, then perhaps the reported 5 regulatory citations against Burr Oak Cemetery regarding sales from burial plots since 2001, or the reported citation in 2007 for failing to deposit funds from burial plot sales into trust within the mandated 30 days.

Now...I'm no "regulator", but I'm leaning towards thinking that with Burr Oak Cemetery, the writing might have been on the wall, especially in light of reports that these activities had allegedly been going on for up to 4 large, bold, red letters posted on the side of the James R. Thompson Center.

Let's not stop there...I don't want to beat a dead horse, but I want to perpetuate how obvious that writing possibly was...NOT to persecute any individual or government body...but to make the point that ONLY YOU CAN PROTECT YOU. A company called Perpetua Holdings of IL reportedly owns Burr Oak Cemetery, which it purchased in 2001. It also reportedly owns Cedar Park Cemetery in Calumet Park, IL, which it purchased in 1997. At the time of the purchase of Burr Oak, according to statements in the Chicago Tribune, a former Perpetua employee, James E. Becker, wrote to the IL Comptroller's office alerting and warning of the mismanagement of cemetery maintenance trust fund at Cedar Park Cemetery and urged the comptroller's office to investigate, the letter stating that the money was "in jeopardy". Alan Henry, a spokesman from the comptrollers office, issued a statement noting that after receiving this warning letter, the office "aggressively moved to investigate the trusting practice at both Cedar Park Cemetery and Chicago's Burr Oak Cemetery". Subsequently, Perpetua took corrective actions, "which included repayment by Perpetua to the trust fund". It was reported that Perpetua made about $400,000 in illegal withdrawals from the trust...with the word "trust" very lightly interpreted...but since they had not taken the interest on the stolen money, they were required to repay the trust fund $171,000, funds that were paid at the time of the Burr Oak Cemetery sale to Perpetua and the great State of Illinois approved the sale.

The Mt. Glenwood Cemetery wall writing seems less in your face...but there is also less information available as it is still fresh meat...pardon the pun. But, approximately a week before the human bone was found, 3 individuals filed lawsuits in Cook County Circuit Court on July 20th against Mt. Glenwood Cemetery, stating "unauthorized tampering with gravesites, including the apparent removal of a headstone", per court documents posted on the Chicago Tribune website and reported by CNN.

Now, in what I believe to be usual government fashion...politicians are seemingly flocking to save the day! Word from Gov. Pat Quinn's office was that the Governor issued an executive order launching a 9-member Cemetery Oversight Task Force to review IL regulations and laws relative to other states and provide recommendations by September 15. IL State Comptroller Dan Hynes' office issued a statement noting that the office immediately froze the approximate $6M in trust assets held in IL by Perpetua and is seeking to revoke the license of both cemeteries owned by the firm.

All big headline grabbers...interesting to me in light of the recent announcements in the IL Governors race, with Hynes announcing that he will seek election as Governor running against Quinn, among others. The way I see it...if a politician can make headlines declaring how they saw consumers (a/k/a taxpayer and/or voter) being hurt and sprang into action to stop whatever practice was in question and they saved and protected the little guy...that's a pretty good news day during an election cycle. Except...if reports are accurate, it would seem that to some degree both the Governor's office and the Comptroller's office, as well as potentially other departments, had some to potentially all of this information, dating back to 2001, and seemingly no regulatory or governmental initiative was launched to take action TO PROTECT THE IL CONSUMER. It seems to have taken a travesty of the most horrendous kind to prompt nimble regulatory attention.

In my experience, I have found that I do not and cannot rely on the trusty and loyal cemetery sales staff, the warm and compassionate funeral home sales staff, or forbid...the protect consumers from funeral and burial industry fraud and/or malpractice.

Contact Funeral Planners Inc. for a free initial consultation and begin taking the steps to pre-plan your funeral and burial decisions. We can and do help. Learn more at or call 219. 728. 1290.

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