People eager to visit, resent lack of information
[Editor’s note: This version of the story corrected the estimated number of attendees and adds an update about the cemetery.]
Long lines snaked through the parking lot of Faith Baptist Church of Bartlett Monday morning as an estimated 3,000 people baked in the heat, sipping water and waiting for their first chance to visit loved ones’ graves since a scandalous cemetery closure.
Galilee Memorial Gardens of Bartlett hit the headlines in 2013 and 2014 over allegations of land theft to buy bodies, multiple bodies being buried in the same spot, and haphazard or missing records about where bodies were placed.
In March, owner Jemar Lambert pleaded guilty in a deal that left him with 10 years’ probation. He still faces costly class-action civil lawsuits.
The property is in receivership and remains closed to public access except by special arrangement.
On Monday, people from toddlers to the elderly waited in the wilting heat with silk flowers and balloons so they could take a bus to the cemetery. Traffic conditions and the cemetery’s limited space prohibited other transportion options.
Some clutched metal boxes with their loved ones’ burial papers inside. Others held sketches and notes based on memories of where they think their family members are buried.
Many said they appreciated the church’s help that day. Virtually all interviewed also said they felt sad and betrayed by how the cemetery was managed by the owner and the state.
They complained of being out of the loop and denied access for too long.
Dollie Adam of Memphis was in line to visit the grave of her husband, Early Adam.
“It’s been awful,” Adam said. “I haven’t been able to get there in about two years.”
Minnie Jackson of Memphis said the news she could visit the cemetery was very welcome. “I’m so glad. I’ve had flowers for two years.”
Melody Davis of Memphis said it’s been terrible not being able to visit her father’s graveside, place flowers and tend to it. She said the Galilee experience has destroyed her peace of mind.
She tried calling a phone number provided by the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance (which oversees cemeteries), but she said she got no response.
The situation weighs heavily on her because she was the one who chose her father’s final resting place.
“I brought my dad home to bury him, and I put him somewhere I thought he was going to be safe,” Davis said.
Betty Weyrough of Memphis buried her mother at Galilee in January of 2010 and was in the habit of visiting at least a couple of days each week and on holidays.
She was glad to visit Monday. “It’s wonderful, to show my mother’s spirit that she’s not been forgotten.”
But, like many visitors, she also spoke of resentment and distrust of how the cemetery has been handled.
“I feel like we’ve just been thrown a bone,” Weyrough said of the day’s visitation.
Brenda Jenkins of Memphis, who buried her son at Galilee just a few years ago, said she is simply hoping she will be able to find his grave.
Similarly, Burnest Rose of Memphis is hoping he can find his mother’s grave. He’s bitter because he specifically asked the mortuary if Galilee had problems before he buried her there in 2013.
Then just two months later, the bad news broke.
Shalandra Snearley of Memphis, who was with him, said it was a double blow so soon after their relative’s death. “You entrust somebody to bury your loved ones properly. It’s very inhumane.”
David Long of Memphis was in line to go to his grandmother’s grave, and he mentioned the light sentence that Lambert received for his crimes. “It wasn’t fair,” he said. “It was a slap on the wrist.”
Berdina Burford of Memphis looked forward to visiting the graves of her husband and sister, but she’s also angry she can’t be buried with him despite purchasing a plot at Galilee for herself. She said she has been told that she’s just out of luck.
Now she doesn’t have the funds to buy another burial site and doesn’t know where her own remains will go when she dies.
Editor’s note: See key filings in the Galilee Memorial Gardens case at this link: http://www.tn.gov/attorneygeneral/cases/galilee/galilee.html. Also see key developments in the cemetery’s handling at this website: http://www.galileereceivership.com/.