Hosemann's office reviewing 1,500 files related to Petal cemetery

By HASKEL BURNS,

Officials from Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s office are diligently reviewing approximately 1,500 files – including receipts, contracts and transactions of purchased goods and services – regarding a Petal cemetery that is in danger of being seized by the state and sold to the highest bidder if the owner doesn’t make arrangements to pay at least $22,477 that is owed to the cemetery’s perpetual care fund.

More than 100 people showed up to a meeting Sept. 25 to bring documents of purchases made from Forrest Memorial Gardens on Carterville Road, as a result of a 2012 audit that discovered cemetery owner Preston O. Lewis of Petal had not remitted the proper amount required by law to the perpetual care fund. Anyone who missed the meeting is encouraged to call Hosemann’s office at (601) 359-9055 to give any information pertaining to transactions made at the cemetery.

“We appreciate so much people coming out and giving us their information,” Hosemann said. “It’s a painstaking review, as you could imagine – some of them are quite old, some of them are more recent – and we have devoted three staff members to go through these (files) one by one.

“The goal is to determine who is still living and has not received what they paid for. At this point in time, we need as much information as we can get. Our staff is so appreciative of everyone who came out (to the meeting), and we would appreciate anyone contacting us directly, because the more information we can get, the more files we can get, the more information about who has been serviced and who hasn’t – it’s critical to determining where we are here.”

After the investigation is completed, officials will contact those involved to set out a path for what comes next. 

“We’ll provide them with a preliminary of what’s been done, and we can determine who has losses and who doesn’t have losses,” Hosemann said. “Obviously, this is a significant issue here.”

According to state law – and per terms of a consent agreement that was drawn up between the cemetery and the Secretary of State’s Regulation and Enforcement Division – cemetery officials are required to deposit 15 percent of the sales price of ground interments to the perpetual trust funds. 

Hosemann said those payments were made for a few years, until Lewis ceased paying into the fund.

“Mr. Lewis made payments of about $7,500 over the years – he was to pay about $374.42 per month,” he said in a previous story. “That money would go into a perpetual care trust for keeping the cemetery up to the standards that we expect – cutting the grass, fixing the roads and the other things that you expect for a cemetery to be well-run.

“He indeed (made those payments) before he quit, citing that he didn’t have the money or health problems or whatever.”

After discovering that Lewis had ceased making payments, Hosemann conducted another audit that showed Lewis had also been selling pre-need funeral goods – such as caskets, burial containers, memorial markers or grave opening and closing fees – without putting those funds into the perpetual care trust.

“He claims to us that he has no books and records, and some of them were cash purchases, so we’re not able to determine how many he sold,” Hosemann said. “We believe there may be as much as $32,000 owed to the perpetual care trust, but we’re unable to really tell that because this individual claims he has no books and records, so we’re really estimating at this point.”

Cemetery officials said they were unable to comment on the matter.

Hosemann’s office will now demand payment from owners of the cemetery. If payments are not made, the cemetery will be seized by the state if approved by a judge, and the funds from the sale will be put into the cemetery’s perpetual care trust.

Since Hosemann’s time in office, the state has seized approximately 12 cemeteries around the state for the same issue, including locations in Laurel, Vicksburg, Booneville and Corinth.