CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Thousands of burials at a Miami cemetery were not properly recorded, making it nearly impossible for relatives to locate graves of the dead, a lawsuit claims.
Lawyers on Friday said they are seeking class-action status for the lawsuit, which says more than 5,460 bodies buried at Graceland Memorial Park South are essentially lost because of bungled record-keeping and destroyed or nonexistent grave markers. The lawsuit was initially filed two years ago on behalf of the family of one woman buried there, but was amended in Miami-Dade Circuit Court on July 17 because lawyers said further investigation showed the problem was much more pervasive.
The amended suit was publicized in a press conference here on Friday.
"The cemetery has violated the basic moral obligation it has to everyone who has buried a love one there," said Ervin Gonzalez, an attorney representing the son and sister of Eloisa Garcia, who died in 1986 and whose grave is allegedly among the lost.
Yvette McPhillips, general manager of Graceland, called the accusations "baseless." She said the cemetery does know where Garcia's grave is, though she would not say whether there was confusion over the location of other graves.
"We're here to serve our community, offer compassionate service and take care of families," she said.
The attorneys circulated a copy of a May 2 deposition by McPhillips in which she detailed the problems with Garcia's grave and explained it as a result of a change in gravesite numbering and a failure by previous owners to keep adequate records. McPhillips would not comment on the deposition.
The plaintiffs claim the previous owners of Graceland Memorial paid a $150,000 fine to the state in 1997 and promised to fix problems at the cemetery. Instead, the suit claims, they kept selling more plots and the situation worsened.
"They knew they were selling people graves that were in the wrong spot," said Neal Hirschfeld, another attorney representing the Garcias. "And they kept selling and selling and selling."
The attorneys said a memorial wall was put up at Graceland Memorial in the section where Garcia is buried to recognize those whose graves are mired in confusion, though the cemetery says that was not the purpose of the wall. Some 5,460 names are listed, though not Garcia's, which the attorneys said indicates there are likely more victims.
Beyond simply confusing the locations of graves, the lawsuit claims the cemetery unearthed gravesites and removed the lid from a burial vault believed to be that of Garcia, revealing a disintegrated coffin and the woman's skeletal remains. McPhillips described the discovery in the deposition.
Alicia Garcia said she thinks about what has happened to her sister's grave every day. "I feel very badly," she said through an interpreter. "To this day, we have not found her."
The lawsuit seeks financial compensation for victims, notification of relatives of the dead and a complete fix of problems at the cemetery.
The cemetery's owner, Cincinatti-based Alderwoods Group, touts itself as North America's second-largest operator of funeral homes and cemeteries, with some 579 funeral homes, 72 cemeteries and 61 properties with both funeral homes and cemeteries.