Petal cemetery in danger of being seized by state

By HASKEL BURNS,

A Petal cemetery 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 – and possibly up to $32,000 – that Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann says is owed to the cemetery’s perpetual care fund.

Hosemann said during an audit conducted in 2012, it was discovered that officials from Forrest Memorial Gardens Cemetery on Carterville Road – which is registered to Preston O. Lewis Jr. of Petal – had not remitted the proper amount required by state law to the perpetual care fund, and were delinquent $22,477 in payments. 

A consent agreement was then drawn up between the cemetery and the Secretary of State’s Regulation and Enforcement Division, in which cemetery officials agreed 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,” Hosemann said. “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.”

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.

In advance of that, Hosemann’s staff held a meeting Tuesday at Petal Civic Center, where attendees were asked to bring copies of documents of purchases made from Forrest Memorial Gardens. The copies will be kept by Hosemann’s office to help determine exactly how much is owed by cemetery owners.

“We’re not at that step (of seizing the cemetery) yet, but obviously we have significant and serious concerns here, and we’re asking the public to help us before we take those steps,” Hosemann said. 

Officials from the cemetery said they were unable to comment on the issue.

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.

 

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