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June 15, 2014

Bussman eyeing cemetery bill to address Memory Gardens issues

CULLMAN — Following the Cullman County Health Department’s investigation into a foul-smelling leak in the crypt at Cullman Memory Gardens, Senator Paul Bussman (R-Cullman) has solicited the Alabama Department of Public Health’s (ADPH) assistance and is considering some new legislation to address similar issues in the future.

The local health department initially received complaints about a strange, oily fluid leaking out from around some crypts at the Bolte Road Cemetery, and determined the leak is likely not related to sewage.

Officials there contacted the Alabama Board of Funeral Services, who confirmed there is essentially no legal oversight for issues and complaints of this nature. Bussman says he’d like to change that, but first he hopes to determine the real cause of the Memory Gardens leak.

“There seems to be no agency able to handle the issue. Since no resolution is obvious, I have taken the lead to determine a solution,” he said. “I have personally visited the site and met with some of the workers there. Obviously there are some real concerns.”

At Bussman’s request, the ADPH is now close to identifying an independent company that can test the leaking fluid and determine its origin. Bussman is also seeking funds to pay for the test, and if none can be found at the state level, he said he would pay for it himself.

“My concern here is the public safety and is this a hazard to the public,” he said. “If it turns out to be moldy drainage from a leaking roof, that is not necessarily a public hazard. If we find the leakage to be fluids from inside the mausoleum vaults, then that could likely be a hazard to the public and a more aggressive approach from the county or Alabama Department of Public Health would be required.”

Bussman said the results of that testing process will determine his next step.

“If that is human fluid, coming from a vault, that’s unacceptable treatment for a deceased person and a potential health hazard for people at the cemetery,” he said.

The state department of public health reportedly spoke with the attorney representing the property, which is reportedly being managed by Jim Enneper, a long-time cemetery-owner from Wisconsin who gained control of Memory Gardens after reportedly receiving a money judgment and filing a writ of execution against owner DeArbor, LLC., after the company bought his Wisconsin cemetery and failed to fully pay for it.

When last reached by The Times, Enneper said he would not give an interview on the matter.

Bussman said the attorney confirmed the cemetery is in bankruptcy, a non-voluntary Chapter 7/Chapter 11, and said with the cemetery trustee that the mausoleum roof is allowing water into the structure.

When asked his thoughts on how to potentially avoid these types of issues in the future from a legislative perspective, Bussman said the problems can be boiled down to one simple issue — accountability.

“We need to have someone with oversight over it. No one has the authority to go in and do anything in these situations. When a cemetery or mausoleum is in bankruptcy, there’s nobody held accountable for what’s going on,” he said. “Someone needs to have oversight to go in there and correct problems and make sure whoever owns it is doing what they’re supposed to do. I don’t want to put more regulations on cemeteries than we have to, but in situations like this where its in bankruptcy and no one is responding, that’s a loophole we need to fill.”

DeArbor, LLC. had bought Memory Gardens in 2009 out of receivership from the State of Alabama, after it was taken over following alleged mismanagement from previous owner Mike Graham and Associates. Graham was investigated by regulators in several states, but died before any local charges were filed.

In 2013, DeArbor began facing issues of its own when the company’s certificate of authority to sell pre-need services related to burial and internment was suspended by the Alabama Department of Insurance. Shortly thereafter the company went dark, the corporate phone number was disconnected and the local office was no longer manned on a regular basis.

A similar situation reportedly occurred at an Albertville cemetery in 2013, though that cemetery — Memory Hill — was owned by the city. Visitors there noticed a strong odor coming from the crypt, and upon investigation city officials learned the cause was a coffin that had not been properly sealed. It was quickly repaired.

* Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 134.

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