19 News Investigates: No law to protect families fighting for better upkeep of private cemeteries

People have complained about conditions at Resthaven Memory Gardens for months.

Graveyard grievances

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Complaints keep pouring in when it comes to the condition of a local cemetery.

The mother of a veteran who passed away is accusing a private out-of-state corporation of letting his grave fall into disrepair.

And she’s not alone.

19 News has reported on concerns from families for the last eight months.

Many say their loved ones have been disrespected at Resthaven Memory Gardens in Avon.

Grave markers have been cracked and grave sites at the cemetery have been flooded.

Marcus Hart, a veteran from North Ridgeville, was just 25 years old when he passed away.

Marcus Hart of North Ridgeville is buried at Resthaven Memory Gardens.
Marcus Hart of North Ridgeville is buried at Resthaven Memory Gardens.

“Everyone loved Marcus. He was a good son, he was a good soldier,” said his mom Patty Hart.

Marcus died from a heroin overdose four days after he came home.

Hart said an injury during basic training led to addiction.

“We brought him home in his army outfit, and we sent him home in his Army outfit. He was just meant to be a soldier,” she said, wiping away a tear.

Patty Hart lost her son Marcus at just 25 years old.
Patty Hart lost her son Marcus at just 25 years old.

Hart was looking at one of his baby pictures. Marcus is wearing Army camouflage in the photo.

She buried her son at Resthaven Memory Gardens February of 2014.

Hart said she already had plots there for herself and her husband.

“It was beautiful 20 years ago,” she said.

The pain of losing Marcus was still fresh when she visited his grave site months later.

Hart was surprised by its conditions.

“We noticed that there was no dirt laid down, no grass seed,” she said.

She said someone in Resthaven’s office told her they would fix it, but it never happened.

“So me and my husband, we just went and got dirt and planted the grass there,” Hart said.

She said they even lifted their son's marker themselves because it was sinking.

“That was a quick fix, but it didn't last long,” Hart said.

“Eight months later, I noticed it was sinking. All around it was nothing but a flood,” she said.

Patty Hart had enough.

Complaints filed with the state

Hart filed a complaint with the Ohio Department of Commerce's Cemetery Dispute Resolution Commission in 2015.

The commission acts as a mediator between consumers and cemeteries.

It also provides Minimum Maintenance Guidelines as a resource for cemeteries and those who visit them.

“My son's laying basically in a swamp, and it's a disgrace that families have to go there and see that,” Hart said.

Records from the commission show it reviewed the drainage repairs made by the cemetery and closed the complaint she filed in 2015.

But Hart said the problems continued years later.

She said a manager at Resthaven told her he would make repairs.

“They did the same thing, put dirt down, lifted his headstone,” Hart said.

She decided to file another complaint with the commission last September, a day after 19News’s first story on Resthaven aired.

Hart has now been fighting the cemetery for years. She said she’s not giving up.

“I'm not going to dig him up either,” Hart said.

“That's not fair, that's not okay. For us to have to bring our loved ones back up and put them somewhere else, that's ridiculous. And I'm going to be there beside him, so is my husband,” she said crying.

19News found other complaints filed against Resthaven with the state last July and January and March of this year.

We requested copies of the complaints from the Ohio Department of Commerce.

In total, four people have filed complaints.

What about perpetual care?

19 News found every cemetery registered in Ohio must set aside at least 10 percent of burial sales into a separate fund for maintenance called the Endowment Care Trust.

Cemeteries are required to file a report with the state every year.

We received Resthaven’s most recent report from the Ohio Department of Commerce through a public records request.

19 News found StoneMor Partners added nearly $20,000 to the trust in 2017, bringing it to a balance of $473,423, according to the report filed with the Ohio Division of Real Estate & Professional Licensing.

Resthaven reported they brought in $173,000 in total sales in 2017.

This is a copy of part of the cemetery endowment care trust annual fund report of Resthaven Memory Gardens for 2017.
This is a copy of part of the cemetery endowment care trust annual fund report of Resthaven Memory Gardens for 2017. (Source: Ohio Department of Commerce)

Patty Hart wants to know why it's been so hard to get repairs done.

“It's just sad, and I'm hoping they'll be new laws. There has to be something done,” Hart said.

19 News discovered Ohio doesn’t have any laws on the books for maintenance at private cemeteries.

StoneMor Partners is based near Philadelphia and runs more than 300 cemeteries across the country.

On its website, StoneMor Partners describes itself as "the only publicly traded death care company."

Can laws be changed?

The cemetery is in State Representative Gayle Manning’s district.

“Resthaven is the place where my father's buried,” Rep. Manning said.

“When you bury someone that you love, you expect the place to be kept up. And I wasn't aware that we don't have any laws on the books for private cemeteries,” Manning said.

She said lawmakers are looking at legislation in other states to see what they can do here.

“We don't want to put something on the books that doesn't have some bite to it,” Manning said.

We asked if fines for cemeteries may be possible under a new law.

“That’s what we’re hoping, yes. We’re going to have to put something,” Manning said.

“Just to sit there and say, 'you have to have a well-maintained cemetery’ isn't going to be enough,” she said.

Families fight back

Hart realized she wasn't alone in February, when another family member formed the Facebook group "Rescuing Resthaven Cemetery."

It now has more than 600 members.

Dozens of people have posted photos complaining about the cemetery.

Families shared pictures of their loved ones graves at Resthaven Memory Gardens.
Families shared pictures of their loved ones graves at Resthaven Memory Gardens. (Source: Marissa Engle, Roberto Giovannazzo)

The owners of Resthaven agreed to start working on drainage problems after meeting with the commission in March.

Resthaven Memory Gardens posted this update to their Facebook page on March 29:

“We’re thankful for the recent weather which has allowed us to accomplish a lot this month here at Resthaven. We’ve leveled and raised many grave sites, cleaned out storm water catch basins, and added gravel to our service roads in the Veterans Section.”

Families posted pictures showing small improvements like fresh dirt around some grave markers.

19 News asked Hart what she thinks about StoneMor Partners saying they will start repairs.

“I don't believe them. Nothing, there's no heart to it. It's what they already said once,” Hart said.

Hart said she won't stop fighting for Marcus, while lawmakers start working at the state capitol.

“I'm his voice, he can't speak. No one else's loved ones that are laying there can. And it's a dishonor for us not to,” Hart said.

A cracked grave marker at Resthaven Memory Gardens.
A cracked grave marker at Resthaven Memory Gardens. (Source: Crystal Lenhardt)

The Ohio Cemetery Dispute Resolution Commission will continue the case involving Resthaven at their next meeting on June 13th.

They did not grant 19 News an interview with any of their members.

The cemetery’s response

19 News reached out to StoneMor Partners for a comment.

A cemetery spokesperson sent us this statement:

“Resthaven Memory Gardens’ mission is to help families memorialize every life with dignity, including providing and maintaining a tranquil and beautiful place for memorialization. In consultation with engineering professionals, we are working on the details of an action plan to remedy flooding and related issues. When completed, we will make available an outline of the plan at the cemetery office. In the meantime, we want to reassure our families and the local community that we are committed to serving them and their loved ones.”

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