BARTLETT, Tenn. (AP) — Clutching red flowers and blue balloons, hundreds of relatives visited deceased loved ones buried at a troubled Memphis-area cemetery for the first time since it closed more than a year ago, after its owner was arrested and charged with mishandling burials.
Galilee Memorial Gardens in Bartlett temporarily opened Monday afternoon to allow family members of people buried there to pay their respects on Memorial Day. Pastors recited prayers and mourners sang "Amazing Grace" at the cemetery, where officials say poor record keeping and questionable burial practices led to lost bodies and concerns of multiple caskets stuffed in single graves.
"We have this sense of feeling in our community that this sacred ground has been disrespected and dishonored," said Danny Sinquefield, pastor at Faith Baptist Church.
The public has been kept out of the cemetery since it was closed and placed in state receivership in early 2014, based on charges filed against owner Jemar Lambert that he buried bodies on land adjacent to the cemetery and buried three bodies in a single grave.
Lambert has pleaded guilty to burying bodies on the adjacent land he did not own and is serving a sentence of 10 years' probation. Charges that he buried the three bodies in a single grave were dismissed.
Lambert agreed to cooperate with the receiver's investigation. The receiver is trying to sort out the cemetery's records, in efforts to determine who is buried where and find out if there is enough space to bury people who purchased plots ahead of time. It is not clear when the cemetery would reopen permanently.
Lambert also faces a lawsuit alleging Galilee stacked multiple caskets in single burial plots, crushed caskets in order to fit more caskets into plots, misplaced remains and buried bodies on neighboring property without authorization. Lambert's lawyers have been challenging the lawsuit in court.
Tennessee's Department of Commerce and Insurance says Lambert kept burying bodies at the cemetery for two years after his registration expired on Dec. 31, 2010. Relatives have said they don't know where their loved ones' remains are located because they were not allowed to see the caskets being lowered into the ground at the cemetery, which is surrounded by trees and bushes.
Mattie Tatum, 84, said her daughter, Juanita Scott, was supposed to be buried at Galilee in November 2013. Tatum looked for a grave marker but could not find it.
"I think they threw her in a thicket, I could never find it," Tatum said. "I went all the way around ... but I didn't see her."