Perpetual Problems: Cemetery owners face little to no enforcement when breaking the law

Published: Nov. 7, 2016 at 4:23 PM EST
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Monday, Nov. 7, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT)-- Losing a loved one is one of life's hardest moments. It's even more heartbreaking when you find their final resting place overgrown and unkempt. The South Carolina Cemetery Board was created to make sure that doesn't happen but an On Your Side investigation reveals the board's power is very limited which makes it easy for cemetery owners across the state to break the law.

It feels like deja vu. "I just hate that we are here back here same situation," James Williams said to the South Carolina Cemetery Board. Rewind to August. James, along with Bamberg County Councilman Trent Kinard, were standing in the same spot in front of the same board. "The State of South Carolina has done nothing! That's a shame," Councilman Kinard said to the board.

Williams' father is buried at Barnwell County Memory Gardens and Kinard's mother rests at Bamberg County Memory Gardens. Both families, along with many others, have complained about conditions at both cemeteries for years. An On Your Side investigation revealed the owner lost his licenses four years ago.

The board revoked Steve Kent's cemetery licenses for not turning over financial records, which is required by law. But, it hasn't stopped Kent from operating his business. It's not hard to see why. Once the board revokes a license, they say, they are no longer responsible for the cemetery and they will no longer conduct an annual inspection of it.

"So once you suspend or revoke their licenses you have no more control over them at that point? They can do willy nilly as they please? So they could dig up a grave, double bury bodies, and nobody cares at that point?" Kinard said the board.

"If I were not a good person I would almost welcome having my licensee revoked so I don't have to meet certain standards," Liz Owens said to the Deputy Director of Professional & Occupational Licensing. "Fair point, I can see in theory, but there are other avenues," Dean Grigg answered.

Other avenues, like Administrative Court. Kent went before the Administrative Court and was ordered to pay some hefty fines. He didn't. He also ignored the cemetery board's fines. He isn't the only one. There is nearly $19,000 in unpaid fines owed to the board over the past five years. There is $50,000 thousand dollars in unpaid fines is owed to the Administrative Court. The only amount paid was to the board was $2500.

The board says it can fine but can't force someone to pay. "Unfortunately, it's the limitations placed on the board by the laws the governing statute," Grigg said. "Why does it even exist if it can't even implement the law and hold cemetery owners accountable?" Liz Owens asked. "I don't know if I am capable of answering that," Grigg answered.

"What needs to happen is state law needs to change. We need to get house members to do what's right," Kinard said. Until that happens, it's difficult to hold cemetery owners responsible for doing what's right themselves.

Kinard is working towards getting someone to sponsor a bill that would help hold cemetery owners more accountable. He and others are also discussing possibly opening a class action lawsuit against the owner of the two cemeteries.