Change in cemetery ownership leads to problems for grieving customers

BLOUNTVILLE, TN (WJHL) – Barbara Skaggs knew burying her mother was never going to be easy, but it was also never supposed to be this difficult. Nearly two weeks after her mom’s death, Monday was the first time she was truly able to grieve.

Skaggs says her mother, Mary Russell, took care of all of her final arrangements decades ago; something she was proud. It was an effort to make sure she didn’t leave her kids with a burden. She will never forget the look on her mother’s face when she died on February 18th.

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“You could tell she was at peace and I knew that she felt comforted in this, because in her mind everything was going to be taken care of,” Skaggs recalled.

Despite planning ahead, her daughter sat at her mom’s house last week more stressed out than ever. In the midst of her grief she scrambled to do exactly what her mom took steps to avoid.

“My mom, I’m just so glad that she passed on without realizing what was actually happening now, because she would be so worried, so upset,” Skaggs said. “She would be devastated. She paid out like she was supposed to and she had to turn around and be dishonored like this. It’s not fair to her.”

Skaggs says her mom bought a plot at what was formerly Tri-Cities Memory Gardens in Blountville as well as a pre-need burial contract there, but that cemetery is now not her mother’s final resting place. Instead, Skaggs is burying her in another cemetery in Virginia, 12 days after her death and not next to the woman’s husband as originally planned. Even worse, she says she’s using the $5,000 her mom left behind to give her a proper burial.

“I’m taking what she left me to bury her,” she said.

Tri-Cities Memory Gardens officially changed owners and names in the last couple of months after financial troubles, bankruptcy and ultimately foreclosure. The new owners are refusing to honor pre-existing contracts; contracts like the one June Morrell’s family signed late last year. Months after her burial, her family says the nearly $2,000 grave marker and vase they bought are still missing.

“I know she would be terribly disappointed,” he grandson Jed Conerly said. “It was really difficult to begin with and instead of grieving it seems like we’re spending more time mad about this situation than actually being sad over her death.”

Eugene Allison is one of the new owners. He and his partner bought the cemetery at a foreclosure sale. Allison argues they did not buy the company. Instead, he says they only bought the land.

“We really feel for these families,” Allison said. “The existing contracts stayed with Tri-Cities Memory Gardens, Inc.”

He also says he doesn’t have control of the trust that holds the money from all of the pre-need contracts and even if he did, he’s convinced there’s not enough money there to cover the needs of the thousands of people who previously bought services there.

“Jeff Gasperson and his company Tri-Cities Memory Gardens needs to come up here and perform the services and fulfill the contracts that he contracted to provide years ago,” Allison said.

Allison says the family that previously owned the cemetery for the last four decades is to blame and he is directing grieving, pre-existing customers to them.

“If Jeff Gasperson (TCMG) refuses to provide to you the merchandise and/or services which Gasperson (TCMG) is obligated to provide by your contract, then in the interest of time we can provide substantially the same merchandise and services to you, but you will need to pay us for this and then try to get reimbursed from Jeff Gasperson (TCMG) or his trust account, whichever is holding the money that you previously paid,” East Tennessee Cemetery wrote in a letter to customers with concerns. “If Jeff Gasperson (TCMG) refuses to provide the merchandise/services to which you are entitled under your contract, and/or Jeff Gasperson (TCMG) refuses to reimburse you for amounts that you pay to us for providing those items for you, then you may have some recourse against him for his breach of contract by filing a lawsuit against Jeff Gasperson (TCMG).”

Gasperson is the first to admit he is at fault for the cemetery’s financial troubles that led to the foreclosure, but sitting at another cemetery his family owns in Church Hill he says the Blountville cemetery, along with any of its contracts and problems, is now in the hands of the new owners.

“We’ve worked our ass off to take care of families,” Gasperson says of his family’s commitment over the years. “I left everything exactly where I was supposed to leave it. The laws require all files, all paperwork, all internment orders, all contracts to stay with the cemetery property.”

Records reveal the State of Tennessee previously called into question Gasperson’s management of the cemetery. A 2014 Department of Commerce and Insurance audit found 15 problems, some of them repeat issues, including his failure to make proper trust deposits on time for dozens of customers.

“I’m disputing the audit,” he said.

A lawsuit recently filed by the North Carolina Cemetery Commission also raises concerns about trust mismanagement at a Gasperson cemetery in Buncombe County. Gasperson says his family is in the process of resolving that issue.

Regardless, he insists there is plenty of money in the merchandise and services trust to cover all of his former customers in Blountville.

“There’s a couple hundred thousand dollars in the trust,” he said.

Gasperson says the new company needs to find a way to use that money.

“East Tennessee Funeral Home has the trust or has the trust to use, all they have to do is to start doing it,” he said. “They have the responsibility to administer the trust.”

“That’s not true,” Allison said. “None of that is true.”

Both sides are adamant their hands are tied and both say there is nothing they can do to help pre-existing customers.

“If I had the money to help them, I’d help them,” Gasperson said.

“I’m telling you that I’m telling you the truth,” Allison said.

“Is there not anything you all can do to help?” we asked him.

“Not without funding,” Allison said.

“You don’t have access to money that could temporarily help?” we asked.

“No,” Allison said.

Allison cites the same law Gasperson showed us to conclude that man is responsible for handling the previous contracts.

“It’s the person who got paid (who is responsible),” Allison said. “These families can show who they paid for this service.”

At the moment, Barbara Skaggs could care less which side is to the blame. All she knows is someone disrespected her mother.

“The dishonor that has been shown to her, she didn’t deserve it, she didn’t deserve it at all,” Skaggs said. “Little did she know that everything that she didn’t want done happened.”

After we got involved the two sides pledged to try and work together to come up with some kind of a short-term solution. In the meantime, both remind customers if they bought a plot at the cemetery that plot still belongs to them. The merchandise and services are what appear to be up for debate.

Gasperson says customers bought insurance with their funeral packages and those packages should be transferable to any other funeral home.

The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance is reviewing the situation.

“We have been examining several questions raised recently regarding cemetery contracts written when this business was under different ownership,” Communications Director Kevin Walters said. “We have been in contact with East Tennessee Cemetery’s current owners and are evaluating the best way to address the issues.”

Copyright 2015 WJHL. All rights reserved. 

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