ROME, Ga. — A national cemetery chain will pay $400,000 in fines following a year-long investigation by the Georgia Secretary of State.
On Thursday, Sec. Brad Raffensperger announced his office reached a settlement with StoneMor, Inc., which includes the financial penalty as well as other measures intended to force the company to fix deteriorating conditions at multiple cemeteries owned by the company throughout the state.
Under the agreement, StoneMor is required to use the money to fix damaged gravesites. The money cannot go toward regular operating or administrative expenses. To prove it, the company must provide the state with quarterly reports showing receipts and expense reports identifying the repairs.
“Instead of that money going to the state, it’s actually going to go back into the property, which is where it needs to be, so upkeep is maintained,” said Raffensperger in an interview with 11Alive on Thursday. “We got them under agreement and we’re making sure we serve the people of Georgia and we’re making sure that we’re going to fight for them to make sure their cemeteries are taken care of. This is for their loved ones.”
The state’s announcement is in response to an 11Alive Investigation about a year ago that uncovered damaged graves at three cemeteries owned by StoneMor in Rome, Georgia.
For years, Rome families documented problems involving their loved-ones gravesites in a Facebook group. After 11Alive shared the Facebook group, and other findings with the Secretary of State, it launched an investigation.
At the time, Raffensperger’s office announced state investigators discovered deplorable conditions at seven StoneMor owned cemeteries. The state originally proposed $750,000 in fines.
Since then, the Secretary of State’s office says the company has improved conditions at three properties, but four remain in a state of disrepair. Most of those are located in Rome, Georgia.
The four cemeteries include:
- Oaknoll Memorial Gardens (Rome)
- Floyd Memory Gardens (Rome)
- Sunset Hill Memorial Gardens (Rome)
- Floral Memorial Gardens (Albany)
The settlement puts StoneMor under a two year probationary period where the state could ban the company from operating in the state at any point if the four cemeteries don’t show progress or remain in violation of the law.
Other conditions of the agreement:
- StonMor must pay the state $6,000 for the cost of its investigations
- StoneMor must give its employees permission to speak to state investigators
- If StoneMor sells any of four cemeteries, the state’s agreement will remain in place.
- The company implemented a hotline (706-381-7597) for consumers to report complaints.
- The company must send all complaints it receives to the Secretary of State.
- StoneMor implemented a new maintenance tracking system for employees to more quickly respond damage.
However, Jerry Brand remains skeptical of StoneMor’s commitment to fix the problems. His parents are buried at Floyd Memory Gardens.
After years of witnessing deteriorating conditions, Brand is in the process of exhuming his parents from their graves and moving them to another cemetery.
He’s already purchased the new plots. Jerry estimates it will cost him nearly $6,500 to do it. “But, I’m committed. I will not subject my parents to the potential of what’s going on,” he said.
In April, Brand showed 11Alive multiple damaged graves at the Rome cemetery, including holes at graves, granite markers cracked in half and fresh graves with no grass put on top of the dirt to prevent runoff.
“Respect and dignity for our loved ones. That’s all we’re asking,” said Brand. “And this is not respect. And, this is not dignity.”
Brand and his wife own plots at the cemetery, but he’s not planning to buried there anymore. They don’t plan to sell plots to anyone, either.
Raffensperger said he wants the public to continue submitting complaints to his office if problems persist. “We need their feedback. We have investigators up there, we had investigators up there last week. So, we’re pushing hard to get the situation improved,” he said.
In a statement released to 11Alive, StoneMor said it’s committed to addressing the issues, but labor shortages has slowed progress.
“The unfortunate reality is that the worker shortage caused by the pandemic has created significant challenges in hiring, training, and retaining a sufficient number of qualified team members, and the continuing supply chain issues complicate the company's ability to make prompt repairs to, and replacement of, markers and other decorative items,” said Lindsay Granson, senior vice president of sales and marketing at StoneMor in an email to 11Alive.
Over the past year, StoneMor says it has spent close to $125,000 in projects cleaning up its Rome properties. “This includes new granite bases, boards, sod, seed, straw, misc. materials, power washing,” said Granson.
This past February, 11Alive uncovered a potential conflict of interest with a member of the Georgia Board of Cemeterians, which has regulatory oversight over the state’s cemeteries. While the state investigated StoneMor, 11Alive discovered the board member attempted to sell cemeteries to the company.
In response to 11Alive’s findings, the Secretary of State’s office says StoneMor has agreed not to purchase any property from the board member.
To report a complaint about a cemetery, the Georgia Secretary of State said the public can contact its office directly: 470-312-2640 or email: email@example.com