Complaints About Damage, Contracts Rising at Maryland Cemeteries

Families say they had to pay for gravesite damage that wasn’t their fault

The final resting place for Willie McCrae has a temporary problem that his grieving widow said cost her money and peace of mind.

"I was very devastated by what I found the first time that I came to visit Willie," Jessie McCrae told the News4 I-Team. The temporary marker she purchased to mark Willie's gravesite was shattered at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Maryland, she said.

"They say that sometimes they get broken because tractors run over them and what have you," McCrae said. "Then I was told that I would need to purchase another one."

McCrae said that replacement cost her $40 -- an amount she said she shelled out again when she later found the second plaque broken, too.

McCrae's family isn't the only one to bring up problems with gravesite damage at Fort Lincoln and at dozens of other cemeteries, according to records obtained by the News4 I-Team.

Statewide, customers made more than 180 complaints to Maryland's Office of Cemetery Oversight (OCO) in 2015 -- a 40 percent increase from 2014. Complaints included reports of improper sales practices, incorrectly marked graves and damaged memorials.

McCrae's granddaughter, Calencia Crutchfield, said she also saw more damaged markers when visiting the grave.

"My granddad's name was not the only one thrown away," Crutchfield told the I-Team. "[It was] just the ultimate form of disrespect," she added, citing multiple broken plaques across the grounds at Fort Lincoln. The I-Team also found several chipped, cracked or broken grave markers at the cemetery on separate visits in 2015 and 2016, along with some graves muddied by tire tracks.

It's not clear if any of the damage spotted by the I-Team was included among the complaints from OCO, but the agency's director called all of the accounts of grave damage unacceptable.

"People pay a lot of money for those headstones and for those graves," said Marilyn Harris Davis, head of OCO. "It's not acceptable to us at all."

Still, OCO has never issued a citation of violation or fine against any of the cemeteries named in the complaints, Harris-Davis said. Instead, to enforce state rules and resolve problems for cemetery customers, Harris-Davis said she or another inspector will check out problems themselves. If they find damage or wrongdoing, they tell the cemetery to fix it, which gets families a faster resolution compared to the red tape involved with citations, Harris-Davis said.

"I've got to tell you, [the cemeteries] do comply," she said. "Sometimes it takes a little more prodding, but they comply."

SCI Dignity Memorial, which is the company that owns Fort Lincoln Cemetery, told News4 its policy on replacing damaged cemetery markers only applies to permanent ones, not temporary ones. SCI also said, in full:

"Out of respect for the privacy of the all the families we serve, it would be inappropriate to share details on any family’s specific situation. We take all client family complaints very seriously and are committed to resolving them as quickly as possible and to everyone’s satisfaction. We are willing to work with families to resolve situations when they occur and encourage any family to contact us if they have any concerns.

"Temporary markers are used to temporarily mark a gravesite while the permanent memorial purchased by a family is ordered and produced. Temporary markers are not designed to last and endure the elements. They are put in place until a permanent marker can be ordered and installed. Fort Lincoln honors all contracts in the way that they are written. In the event a permanent marker is damaged by maintenance crews, it is the cemeteries' policy to repair the damage or replace the marker. But, this policy does not apply to temporary markers."

But no family, including Jessie McCrae's, should ever have to pay for damage that's not their fault, Harris-Davis said.

"That should not happen," she said. "And many, many times, we have the cemetery send [customers] a check. They should not have had to pay for that themselves if it's at the cost of the cemetery."

McCrae and her family did not file a complaint with the state at first because they didn't know they could, but they've now started that process. If you have a complaint to report about a cemetery in Maryland, you can file it by calling 410-230-6370.

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Ashley Brown, shot by Jeff Piper and Steve Jones, and edited by Jeff Piper.

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