Lawrence Memorial Park Cemetery ( .PDF )
A Douglas County District Court judge has made Ellen Young feel better about Memorial Park Cemetery.
Judge Robert Fairchild has ordered that the city of Lawrence become the official owner of Memorial Park Cemetery as part of a settlement of a lingering lawsuit related to poor care of the property.
The settlement - brokered by the Kansas Attorney General's office - also forever bars the former owners of the cemetery from operating in Kansas.
"That's good news to me," said Young, who in 2004 buried her 52-year-old husband at the property near 15th and Harper streets in east Lawrence.
She then spent the next year battling deplorable conditions at the site, including unmowed grass, rampant weeds, a missing tombstone, and on one occasion arriving to find her husband's grave covered by a pile of dirt from a nearby burial.
"I just thought it was deplorable that they behaved the way they did," Young said of Mike W. Graham & Associates, the Texas-based company that owned the cemetery. "There is nothing as traumatic as losing a family member. You place your trust in the people you are working with to treat you fairly.
"To me, they were just unethical businesspeople."
More than 150 people had filed official consumer protection complaints against the cemetery, and the attorney general's office had been trying since 2005 to transfer ownership of the property to the city.
The city's Parks and Recreation Department has been responsible for maintenance of the cemetery since May 2005, when a District Court judge found the cemetery was in disrepair and had not been meeting its responsibilities under the law.
But the city did not take official ownership of the property because Graham & Associates contested the court's findings. The city wanted ownership, in part, because city leaders said they were not comfortable investing money in major maintenance projects without owning the land.
On Wednesday, city leaders said they were pleased with the court's action.
"We're now in a position to offer some peace of mind to citizens who have loved ones in the cemetery," said Toni Wheeler, the city's director of legal services. "It is an outcome we had expected, but it has been a long time coming."
Work to be done
The settlement included a provision that a $229,000 maintenance fund maintained by Graham & Associates be transferred over to the city.
City Commissioner Mike Amyx said he hoped the city could use that money to do some larger maintenance projects at the facility. The city already has spent $250,000 on the property since 2005.
"We need obvious road work out there," Amyx said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to look at those things. The main thing, though, is I hope people feel like they can rest assured that the city is in control now."
'Not completely satisfied'
The settlement, however, doesn't resolve all the questions surrounding the property. The attorney general's office alleges that a host of individuals had prepaid for burial services at the site, but when the time came for burial, family members were forced to pay again.
As part of the settlement, Graham & Associates did not admit to those allegations but did agree to turn over to the attorney general's office a $292,000 "merchandise fund" that the company maintained. The attorney general's office will use that fund to reimburse people that it determines paid twice for a service.
But Ashley Anstaett, a spokeswoman with the attorney general's office, said it is uncertain whether there would be enough money to fully reimburse everyone. Anstaett said that possibility made the settlement less than ideal, but she said there were extenuating circumstances.
Mike Graham, the owner of the company that owned the cemetery, died in December. He left very few assets for the attorney general's office to seize.
"Normally, we would look to get more money so we could fully compensate the people who had prepaid accounts," Anstaett said. "We're not completely satisfied with the outcome, but because of the death of the owner, we did the best we could."
Anstaett said the attorney general's office would begin trying to identify people who had prepaid accounts. She added that affected people could call the attorney general's office at 888-428-8436 to ensure their names are on the list.