Ornate Victorian main gate at Elm Lawn Cemetery is blocked off, reportedly on order of the city inspection department.
Ownership of 5 Tri-City Cemeteries in Court, Elm Lawn Gate Closed by City
Suit Also Involves Midland Memorial Gardens, Three Saginaw Cemeteries
April 20, 2008
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By: Dave Rogers
(EDITOR'S NOTE: For further information about this story, please see MyBayCity.com Nov. 25, 2007 "New Owners of Elm Lawn, 4 Area Cemeteries Take Over Dec. 31 in Fraud Case," and March 14, 2003, "Elm Lawn Gatehouse, Chapel Concern of Architectural Review Group.")
One of Bay City's most picturesque historic attractions, the Victorian main gate at 1890 Elm Lawn Cemetery, has been closed by the City of Bay City.
While no official statement has been issued by the city, reports from knowledgeable sources were that the arch on the gate is suspected of structural weakness. Therefore, barriers have been placed across the entrance on Ridge Road, although access to the 20-acre cemetery is available through the fence on Park Avenue.
There also are reports that cemetery plot owners are finding it difficult to obtain water on the grounds of Elm Lawn, some spigots reportedly being turned off or broken.
Meanwhile, ownership of Elm Lawn, three cemeteries in Saginaw and one in Midland, that was thought to be securely assigned to Midwest Memorial Group of Detroit, as of the first of the year, is back in court.
A Southfield non-profit organization, St. Augustine's National Foundation, Inc., has filed suit in Federal Court to block a $32 million sale of Elm Lawn and 27 other Michigan cemeteries.
The court action leaves Elm Lawn, and other cemeteries in the same ownership group in Midland and Saginaw, in limbo. Saginaw's Eastlawn and Roselawn Memorial Gardens and Oakwood Mausoleum and Midland Memorial Gardens are also involved.
The non profit brought the lawsuit against Michigan Cemetery Commissioner Andrew Metcalf and attorney Mark Zausmer, the court-appointed conservator, alleging conflict of interest.
According to news reports, Zausmer is under legal attack because he offered his legal services to recover pilfered trust funds after the sale and gave preferential treatment to the winning bidder, Midwest Memorial Group.
The non profit also charged, through attorney Kathy Henry, that Midwest Memorial Group was permitted to leverage the anticipated return of trust fund monies to finance the purchase of the cemeteries. She called the sale procedure "reprehensible," in that St. Augustine's and other bidders were not allowed the same privilege of using trust funds for financing.
Metcalf authorized the sale of the 28 cemeteries after the state took control and charged the previous owner, Clayton Smart, and his firm Indian Nation, with bilking about $61 million from cemetery trust funds. Those were monies paid by clients in advance for burials and "perpetual" care of the graves.
In a new development, House Speaker Pro Tempore Michael G. Sak (D-Grand Rapids) announced legislation to protect against the misuse of cemetery trust funds.
The legislative initiative is in response to the case of Clayton Smart, Oklahoma oil-and-gas speculator alleged to have misappropriated the $61 million from funeral homes and cemeteries in Michigan and other states.
"Michigan families who are already suffering emotionally should not have to suffer financially, too," Sak said. "The vast majority of Michigan cemeteries provides an invaluable service and follows the highest standards. We need to ensure that we protect families from the unscrupulous actions of a select few."
In 2004, Smart bought 28 Michigan cemeteries and at least three funeral homes in Tennessee. He is alleged to have looted the cemeteries' perpetual care trust fund in Michigan and the prepaid funerals trust funds in Tennessee.
Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox accused Smart of embezzling up to $70 million from the fund, which has been built up over decades to pay for the long-term maintenance of the cemeteries. Michigan law requires cemetery owners to put 15 percent of each burial space sale into a trust fund.
The proposals Sak announced were fashioned from recommendations by a work group made up of the Michigan Cemetery Association, Attorney General Mike Cox and the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth. The proposals would tighten control of cemetery trust funds and ensure all cemetery owners follow high standards. Called the Michigan Cemetery Trust Fund Protection Act, the proposals would:
Prevent new cemetery owners from acting on trust funds for at least 6 months.
Improve background checks of new cemetery owners.
Toughen penalties against cemetery owners who violate trust funds.
Tighten overall control of the trust funds.
Michigan cemetery owners hailed Sak's proposal, calling it a positive step.
"We who obey the laws and serve our families for generations with integrity are glad to support any effort to keep criminals out of an industry whose main focus has and always will be the well being of the families that we serve," said Curtis Clemens, President of Blythefield Memory Gardens Inc.
"Cemeterians support tougher standards and tighter enforcement measures to protect Michigan families," said Kelly Dwyer, President of Michigan Memorial Park, one of the state's largest nondenominational cemeteries. "Our relationships with families span generations, and we take that responsibility seriously. We applaud this legislation as a step in the right direction and ask the Legislature to act on it as quickly as possible."
Local News Article 2533
Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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