Bartlett cemetery owner bonds out

Galilee Memorial Gardens in Bartlett
The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office is keeping a watchful eye on Galilee Memorial Gardens as the investigation continues.

Witnesses report grisly scenarios of smashed caskets

Staff reports

Jemar Lambert
Jemar Lambert

Long yellow streamers of crime scene tape still blocked entrances to Galilee Memorial Gardens in Bartlett on Monday, when the owner bonded out of jail.

Cemetery operations remain shut down because of a temporary restraining order. A Shelby County Sheriff’s Office patrol car was parked just inside the gate, keeping visitors and media off the premises.

Cemetery owner Jemar Lambert, 38, was arrested Jan. 24 on charges of theft of property over $1,000 and abuse of a corpse. He allegedly buried multiple bodies in the same graves without proper permission to do so, Shelby County Dist. Atty. Gen. Amy Weirich said. Affadavits in the case include grisly allegations such as backhoes being used to crush caskets so more would fit into the cemetery’s limited space.

Lambert paid a $5,000 bond and left custody around mid-day Monday, Higgins said. Lambert was due back in court Tuesday his arraignment.

The new charges stem from an investigation that began in November when searchers for a missing body filed a report with the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance (TDCI), which regulates funeral homes and cemetery practices. The report alleged the burial of three different bodies in the same grave on March 9 and March 12 of 2013.

Along with arresting Lambert, the DA’s investigators also executed a search warrant for the cemetery’s burial records.

As of Monday, no names had been released about the victims and their families, said Vince Higgins, communications director for the DA’s office. He also confirmed that no exhumations have taken place.

Lambert’s case did not yet have an attorney assigned as of Monday.

Weirich said in an earlier press release, “We are sensitive to the importance of Galilee Memorial Gardens to countless families and to our community. We will continue working with the Department of Commerce and Insurance to resolve this situation respectfully and effectively.”

Lambert is not new to the court system. Last year he was indicted on charges of theft of property over $60,000 for allegedly selling burial plots to bereaved families on adjacent land not owned by the cemetery, which covers about nine acres at 8283 Ellis Road. He is scheduled for Shelby County Criminal Court on Feb. 13 on the burial plot theft charges.

New management pending for cemetery

The cemetery may soon be under new leadership, if Tennessee Commerce and Insurance Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak and the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office have anything to say about it.

“Back in January 2013, we told Galilee to no longer solicit any new business,” Kate Abernathy, TDCI public information officer, said Friday. “They could fulfill any pre-existing/pre-need contracts.”

But she said complaints kept bubbling up, alleging that Galilee was breaking the agreement.

So the TDCI and AG’s offices filed a court petition to name the TDCI commissioner as receiver for the cemetery and also to get temporary and injunctive relief (to shut down cemetery operations temporarily).

If receivership is granted in an upcoming chancery court hearing in Davidson County, the TDCI will appoint a deputy receiver to administer cemetery operations. As of Monday, no date had been set yet for that hearing.

McPeak said, “We believe that the owners and proprietors of Galilee Memorial Gardens cannot act in the best interest of the community. This is a complex process that involves many moving parts. Know that we are working alongside the Shelby County District Attorney General’s Office to identify the extent of issues with Galilee.”

Questions & complaints

  • Existing customers with questions about the status of pre-need contracts, their cemetery lots, or other questions regarding Galilee can contact TDCI’s Burial Services Section at (615) 741-5062.
  • People with criminal complaints against Galilee should contact their local authorities or the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office at (901) 222-1300.