Families to Sue Tennessee Cemetery Accused of Packing Corpses Into Graves

Galilee Memorial Gardens allegedly stacked bodies, buried corpses outside of cemetery

  • Share
  • Read Later
Yalonda M. James / The Commercial Appeal / AP

Mariam Woody speaks with James E. Johnston, Jr., a criminal investigator, Shelby County District Attorney General Office, as she tries to visit her brother's grave at Galilee Memorial Gardens in Bartlett, Tenn., Jan 24, 2014.

Tennessee families who say their loved ones were packed into graves at a now-closed cemetery said Tuesday that they will pursue a lawsuit against the graveyard’s owners.

Elbert Jefferson, an attorney who represents the bereaved families, said he and his clients would likely file a class-action lawsuit against Galilee Memorial Gardens in Memphis, Tenn. Jefferson said he’s still talking to families and it’s unclear how many plaintiffs will ultimately be involved in the lawsuit. “We have at least 100 or more individuals who have called, and we’re in the process of scheduling a time for them to come in,” he said in a phone interview. When asked how many bodies may have been improperly buried, he said “that’s the million-dollar question.”

Jefferson said the permit for Galilee expired in 2010, when state documents reflected they no longer had room to bury bodies, but that owner Jemar Lambert “continued to bury individuals after that, and continued to sell what they call pre-need plots,” which are burial plots purchased before death. Jefferson said records show that Lambert sold over 200 pre-need plots after 2010, even though he knew he was out of space.

Lambert is also facing criminal charges after some funeral homes alleged that he stacked bodies in graves without permission, and after reports of employees opening graves to identify the remains, the Commercial Appeal reports. Local prosecutors are charging him with abuse of a corpse, and is facing theft charges for allegedly burying some bodies on adjacent land that didn’t belong to him. The Shelby County District Attorney’s office said Lambert had been due to appear in court Tuesday before his attorney requested a continuance, and Lambert is now scheduled for a court appearance on Feb. 24.

Coleman Garrett, who is representing Lambert in his criminal trial, said that the cases are still in the discovery phase, and that a court date has not yet been set. “We’re just taking it a baby step at a time to see if we can try to walk through this minefield,” he said.

“There’s a difference between innocence and not guilty,” Garrett added. “That’s for the state to prove and the jury to decide.”

He wouldn’t comment further.  It’s not yet clear who will represent Lambert in the civil suit.

The macabre allegations resemble the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal in 2009, when authorities discovered cemetery managers in the Chicago suburb of Alsip, Ill., were digging up remains in order to re-sell the grave-sites, then dumping the bodies elsewhere in the cemetery. The historic cemetery contained the remains of Emmet Till, the back teenager whose lynching played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, and singer Dinah Washington. Cemetery owner Carolyn Towns pleaded guilty in 2011 to multiple counts of desecrating human remains, and is almost three years into her 12-year prison sentence.

Lambert’s family has operated the cemetery since 1993, but his father filed for bankruptcy in 2006. Jefferson said Lambert had been applying to have his permit renewed since it was revoked in 2010, but that the renewal had been denied several times and was currently pending. Calls to the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance were not immediately returned.

Jefferson said that families of the deceased were not allowed to watch the burials at Galilee, and were instead told to leave and that the cemetery staff would handle the burial. “They would set up a tent, and set up a raised casket, and the family would be there with their minister, and there would be a commitment of the body to the ground. However, in most instances post 2010, the operators would tell the families to leave,” he said. “For some of our clients, they never saw a fresh dug grave. They were led to believe that their family member would be taken care of properly. Some of the families have dedicated plots, but then they’d go back and visit and the headstone would be in a different place.”

Although Galilee Memorial Gardens is now closed, Lambert is still operating the part of his business that makes headstones and other funerary objects.