News

Pa. cemetary laws leave some seeking clarity

Written by Lillian Reed, The Evening Sun | Mar 11, 2016 1:00 PM
oaklawn.jpg

Tire tracks cut through the grass at Oak Lawn Memorial Gardens on March 8, 2016.  Clare Becker, The Evening Sun

(Cumberland Township) -- Confusion and a hazy knowledge of Pennsylvania's cemetery law has left clients of Oak Lawn Memorial Gardens in Cumberland Township asking what their rights are.

That's why it is so important for people to research and even interview a cemetery business just as they would a funeral home before they invest in plots, vaults or services for their loved ones, said Michael Newman, owner of Panebaker Funeral Home in Hanover.

Last week, dozens of families and individuals poured into Oak Lawn Memorial Gardens in Cumberland Township to inspect the grounds after news broke that the property had fallen into a state of disarray. The new owner, Ramesh Rao, reported to authorities that he did not have a license to continue burials, despite the fact that Pennsylvania state law does not require such licensing.

Crooked headstones, piles of soil and tire marks marred the cemetery, leaving many families upset and questioning their legal rights. Much of the confusion surrounds what the legal requirements are for the owner of a cemetery to maintain the property.

Cemetery companies are legally required to put no less than 15 percent of their earnings into a permanent lot care fund, according to the 2010 Pennsylvania Code regarding burial grounds. It was not immediately clear whether such a fund exists or was being used for Oak Lawn.

In the past two weeks, Cumberland Township Police Department has received about 400 complaints concerning Oak Lawn, said Lt. Tim Guise Wednesday. He anticipates the investigation will take several months to complete because of the volume of complaints.

Many people took to social media to question where the money they had spent on prepaid vaults, plots and services had gone.

Former cemetery owner James Delaney lost possession of the property over the summer after he defaulted on a loan to Shree Ganesh Finance LLC, according to a news release from the Pennsylvania Department of State. Delaney had used the cemetery as collateral on the loan.

Attempts to reach Delaney for comment were unsuccessful.

Still, Rao's lawyer asserted to officials that his client had purchased the land and not the cemetery business. Some experts were not immediately clear on whether such an arrangement would be possible, but something about the statement doesn't sit right with Mary Bartleson, manager of Mt. Olivet Cemetery, a private cemetery in Penn Township.

"Even when you purchase a cemetery, with that not only goes the land but the trust for that perpetual care," she said.

Newman, who is a third generation funeral director, said Pennsylvania law is strict with how funeral homes are able to handle money taken as pre-payment. Funds families give to funeral homes to pre-pay for a vault or a casket is required to be put into a trust, only to be retrieved once needed.

"It's not our money at this point," Newman said. "It belongs to that person and family. We need to help them be good stewards of it."

Cemeteries, however, are not being held to this same standard under Pennsylvania law, Newman said.

"If cemeteries are held to a higher standard across the board, folks wouldn't have to worry about this," Newman said in reference to potentially lost investments.

The Cemetery and Funeral Merchandise Trust Fund Law requires funeral directors and cemeteries to deposit 70 percent of any payments made in advance of a burial into a trust fund account. The idea is that when the time comes, the money will be sitting in the account waiting for the family to purchase a vault or name placard.

But if a cemetery operator were to order a vault in advance of a burial and set it aside for the family, there would be no legal need for a trust fund to be established. In some cases, merchandise may never make it to the family.

Pennsylvania State Senator Thomas McGarrigle, a Republican who represents portions of Delaware and Chester counties, is sponsoring a bill that seeks to close that loophole.

McGarrigle was not immediately available for comment, but a copy of a memorandum he sent to senate members on May 12, 2015 was available on the Pennsylvania state legislature website.

If passed, his legislation would protect consumers by ensuring their funds are maintained in a trust and available for a refund, with interest, should they cancel their contract with a cemetery prior to a burial taking place, McGarrigle said in the memorandum.

In the meantime, there are several things families can consider in a cemetery operator before committing to an investment, Bartleson said.

The first is to note whether a cemetery is corporate- or privately-owned. A corporate-run cemetery requires contracts and receipts of purchase to be submitted to the headquarters, which usually keep track of the state requirements for running that type of business.

If it is a small, privately-owned cemetery, families should make sure there is an accountant or business partner assisting in cemetery operations to act as a check or balance when handling funds, Bartleson said.

"Not every cemetery or funeral home is bad, but there are those where greed just overtakes them," she said.

Another tip is to ask how much of the price of an interment fee goes into a perpetual care trust. Mt. Olivet has a policy of putting away 15 percent into a trust to ensure that there will be funds for maintaining the property in years to come, Bartleson said.

Most importantly, Bartleson believes people should trust their instincts when it comes to selecting the right cemetery or funeral home, she said.

"If your loved one wanted to be here, but you don't feel comfortable, go somewhere else," she said. "If you get a good feeling from the people you are dealing with, you know you are on the right path because they are doing everything to provide you with the trust that you are giving them."

Until questions about the legality of Oak Lawn's condition are answered, local government officials have assured people that funeral directors will still have access to the cemetery's business records, which are being held at the Cumberland Township Police Department.

Those who purchased plots at the cemetery were deeded for the land and have legal documentation of their purchase, Adams County Sheriff James Muller said last week.

Because no license is needed to conduct a burial, the families at Oak Lawn should have no legal problems burying loved ones so long as they have a licensed funeral director and are using the correct plot that they purchased, Bartleson said.

Timeline: Oak Lawn Memorial Gardens 

  • May 2010: Oak Lawn Memorial Garden owner James Delaney's license to run a cemetery brokerage, which included multiple salespeople, expired. After this time, he was allowed to continue his business as the sole operator, which is allowed under the state's Real Estate Licensing and Registration Act. 
  • Nov. 15, 2015: Delaney filed for bankruptcy in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. He listed a $255,000 debt to Shree Ganesh Finance LLC. in court documents. 
  • Summer of 2015: Delaney lost possession of the cemetery after defaulting on the loan to Shree Ganesh Finance LLC. Delaney had used the cemetery as collateral on the loan.
  • July 17, 2015: Shree Ganesh Finance purchased the cemetery July 17 for $3,000 in an Adams County Sheriff's Sale.
  • Aug. 3, 2015: The finance organization signed over the cemetery to Ramesh S. Rao, of North Wales, Pennsylvania
  • January 2016: Rao was officially deeded the cemetery.
  • February 2016: Adams County Sheriff James Muller had trouble burying a family member at Oak Lawn and was told by Rao's lawyer that he does not have a license to bury people. As the news of the purchase spread, people poured into the cemetery to inspect its poor condition, including piles of dirt and missing or misplaced headstones. 
  • March 1: The Adams County District Attorney's office and Cumberland Township Police Department announced that they were beginning an investigation into the cemetery's situation.
  • March 4: Adams County Commissioners announced in a public release that families will be able to continue burying family members in the meantime.
  • March 4: County officials announced that lot records were removed from the Oak Lawn business office and taken to the police department, where they could be accessed by funeral directors by appointment. Burial plot owners were also told they still retained the right to bury deceased loved ones. 
  • March 9: Cumberland police confirmed that more than 400 complaints were made to the department regarding Oak Lawn. The department is still collecting digital copies of families' records of purchases at Oak Lawn as part of the investigation. 

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between The Evening Sun and WITF. 

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