State investigators reported last week that they have no evidence to prove that Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills mishandled graves, as alleged in a class-action lawsuit filed against the cemetery’s owners in September.
The lawsuit, which now has 900 families signed on, alleges that Service Corporation International, which owns Eden and 1,700 other cemeteries in the country, knowingly broke as many as 1,500 buried concrete vaults and then dumped human remains that fell out. The suit alleges Eden was trying to cram graves too close together.
California’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau reviewed five years worth of audits and a June 2008 investigation into similar allegations and concluded that there is not enough evidence to support the claims.
“The kinds of things that are being alleged are not easily hidden from view,” said Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau. “If thousands of bodies had been removed and the graves desecrated, there would be evidence of cracked or missing headstones, a much larger spoils pile [where excess dirt is dumped], and there might be bones in that spoils pile. Those are the kinds of things our auditors would catch.”
Michael Avenatti, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the suit is going forward. He said the state’s investigation is “woefully inadequate,” as officials did not revisit the cemetery after the suit was filed and simply reviewed shoddy audits from past years. He alleges that the cemetery and the state are glossing over a damning investigation from last year.
State investigators were called out in June 2008 to investigate allegations that the cemetery had disturbed more than 500 graves over 15 years. The report from that investigation includes an interview with a groundskeeper who alleged that he was ordered, by two different managers, to discard or scatter remains that fell out of vaults that were broken when adjacent graves were being dug.
But Heimerich said investigators found no corroborating evidence for this testimony. The June 2008 report found that five graves had been accidentally disturbed and that four of the families had been notified. It also found that SCI used a $2,500 endowment meant for Eden at a different cemetery.
Avenatti said his investigation, including interviews with employees and former employees, is uncovering hundreds more cases of grave disturbances. He said some families who have joined the suit have noticed irregularities at Eden.
But Heimerich said dozens of concerned families called the bureau after the suit was filed, and they were asked to look for cracked headstones, uneven ground, or an unusual number of fresh graves. None of the families called the bureau with any such evidence.
A hearing is set for Jan. 25, 2010, regarding a preliminary injunction the plaintiffs are seeking to prevent Eden from breaking any vaults and possibly to prevent any further burials until the case is resolved.
Avenatti plans to ask for the trial to begin early in 2010.