Green Acres customers fretting

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 1, 2009

VICKSBURG (AP) — Lynn Campbell and her late husband, John, thought they were doing the responsible thing when they purchased pre-need burial services in 1990 at Green Acres Memorial Park.

They had carried the weight of arranging the funerals and burials of their parents, and they didn’t want to leave their two sons with the same burden.

‘‘We considered the city cemetery (Cedar Hill), but we wanted everything to be taken care of in advance and we didn’t want our sons to have to worry about taking care of the upkeep,’’ Campbell said.

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‘‘So we went ahead and bought and paid for everything — the lots, vaults, markers and opening and closing of the graves’’ at the 15-acre Green Acres, which promises perpetual care, she said.

After hearing about the lawsuit filed by Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann against Green Acres’ owners to recover more than $373,000 missing from the company’s trust account, Campbell fears the roughly $3,500 she and her late husband paid to Green Acres might not keep her sons from being saddled with the strain of paying for her funeral and maintaining their parents’ graves.

‘‘I’m concerned about what’s going to happen when I die. Is the vault going to be there? Is the grave going to be opened and closed?’’ she asked. ‘‘Are my sons going to have to pay for it even though I already have? I want to have the assurance that my sons will not have to go through any hassles. That’s what I’ve paid for.’’

She’s not the only one.

Even though he has no business affiliation with Green Acres, Charles Riles, owner of Riles Funeral Home and chairman of the Mississippi State Board of Funeral Service, said he has been talking with people concerned about their contracts with Green Acres, a burial ground off U.S. Highway 80 East.

‘‘Our phones started ringing … and they rang all day long, and I’m sure that’s been the case at every funeral home in town. People want to know what’s going to happen to their family members’ graves, what’s going to happen with the money they’ve paid and what happens if a family member dies.

‘‘The sadness is I don’t have the answers to most of those questions, and I don’t know if anybody does right now. But there’s nobody really for these people to complain to, so I understand their frustrations,’’ Riles said.

Since 2001, Green Acres has been owned and operated by Houston, Texas-based Mike Graham and Associates LLC. The late Joe Varner had owned and operated it from 1959 until his death in 1989, when son-in-lawJim Hobson took over. Today there are about 3,200 gravesites.

John Bell of Vicksburg and his wife, Joan, bought from Varner lots and pre-need services for themselves and their four daughters 36 years ago, after their daughter died at 12 from a battle with cancer. Since then, Bell has had to bury another daughter. Now he and his wife are wondering if their daughters’ graves will be taken care of and if their remaining contracts with Green Acres will be honored.

‘‘This whole thing has just got us both very upset,’’ Bell said. ‘‘I just can’t understand how they can sell these plots and then the money just disappears. It’s not right, and I bet you Joe (Varner) would be having a fit right now if he knew this was going on.’’

Hosemann said he spoke with Linda Graham, the wife of the late Mike Graham, and she said two employees would remain in Vicksburg for the time being. However, he said, Graham could not assure him that vaults and other prepaid services would be provided as needed. For those who have deeds to their burial sites, Hosemann said they will not lose them, but he could not guarantee anyone would receive the burial services they’ve paid for.

Riles said some people have asked him if he thinks they should have their family members moved to another cemetery. For now, he is advising people to wait and see what happens with the lawsuit.

‘‘I’m telling them to not be afraid that something is going to happen to the graves out there. The state of Mississippi is very protective of cemeteries, and there is no doubt the graves at Green Acres will be protected by the state and our local government.

‘‘When it comes to the pre-need services, however, I can tell you that when this happens to a funeral home, the majority of the time the money is lost,’’ Riles said.

Jimmy Vessel, a Vicksburg dentist, is among the customers who have visited the cemetery since Hosemann filed his lawsuit last month.

At the burial site, Vessel said grass mowing and opening and closing of graves are ongoing, but some markers are lacking.

Both of his parents are buried at Green Acres, but the paid-for bronze plaque to mark the site where his mother’s remains were buried nearly a year ago has not been installed.

On Jan. 23, Chancellor Vicki Roach Barnes ordered a temporary restraining order against Green Acres and froze all of the company’s known bank accounts.

A hearing is set for Feb. 2 to begin digging into the company’s contracts, accountings and operating records since 2001.

While $220,000 has been frozen in a trust account to pay for the ‘‘assured perpetual care’’ promised on the entrance sign of Green Acres, it cannot be used to offset burial costs. The balance of the trust fund for those costs is $221.60 — $373,813.80 less than should be there, Hosemann said.

‘‘What they’ve done with the money they’ve made through the years, I don’t know. I think it’s been squandered and they have tried to cover it up with lies as long as they could,’’ said Campbell.

Hosemann has pledged to recover lost payments. The state might have to take over the cemetery, and Hosemann said if that’s the case, a temporary manager will be sought locally until it can be sold.

Riles said the larger issue at hand is the regulation and oversight of cemeteries in the future to ensure others in the state don’t go through what so many people in Vicksburg are going through.

‘‘Mississippi is one of the few states that does not have a regulatory board over cemeteries, and now we’re seeing that cemeteries can have problems that need some oversight,’’ Riles said. ‘‘There will be a law that comes out of this, you can count on it. To go through all this and have no good result come from it would be a sin.’’

Bills have been introduced in the Legislature would form a loss-recovery program and other measures to protect people who have paid for pre-need burial services, said Hosemann.

‘‘I think this is the largest cemetery failure in the state of Mississippi that I have ever known of,’’ said Riles, who has been in the business 49 years. ‘‘There’s an important word in all of this: dignity. Ask yourself: is all of this dignified?’’ he said. ‘‘There are people who won’t even step on a grave. They’ll walk around rather than step on a grave. And now we have this.’’