04 May 2011

Lamar W. Hankins : A Grave Injustice in Groves, Texas

Graveside greed: Service Corporation International's Greenlawn Memorial Park in Groves, Texas

Grave injustice:
The rapacious ways of
Service Corporation International

By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / May 4, 2011

For the second time since 2000, I have encountered the unrelenting greed of Service Corporation International (SCI). In 1960, my parents, Herman and Arthur Mae “Smitty” Hankins, bought four plots in Greenlawn Memorial Park, a cemetery located in Groves, Texas, adjacent to Port Arthur, where I grew up. Around 1998, SCI acquired the cemetery from the family that had owned it for 100 years.

In 2000, after the death of my younger brother, his cremated remains were buried in one of the plots with the approval of Paul Pond, cemetery manager, and Craig McGee, the Area Manager for SCI at that time. Their approval came only after a prolonged negotiation made necessary by the desire of SCI to extract the most money possible out of every opportunity, often by relying on its own policies.

Most cemeteries, especially corporate ones, reserve the right to change their policies -- as reflected in their rules and regulations -- at any time. When they do so, the changes often cost families more money and thereby enhance the profits of the corporation.

My brother’s cremated remains were encased in a tube made of PVC pipe sealed on both ends with PVC end caps. My family and some friends held a family-planned and family-directed graveside service, during which my father, an uncle, a cousin, and I took turns digging an appropriate-sized hole with a post hole digger, then lowered the capsule into the hole with a specially-designed bag that I fashioned out of macrame materials that my brother had used to make craft items.

My mother and father (as well as the rest of the family) found the graveside service meaningful and advantageous to them in dealing with their grief. The participation by several family members in the service gave it meaning that it would not have had with the involvement of funeral or cemetery professionals.

My mother and father have now died. When I was in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area on February 25, preparing for my father’s memorial service at Wildwood-Village Mills United Methodist Church held the next day, my wife and I visited with John Davis at Greenlawn to explain that I wanted to make preparations for a similar service for the interment of the cremated remains of both my parents, which are contained together in a container similar to the one I made for my brother’s cremated remains.

John Davis’s initial reaction was that my family’s wishes could not be fulfilled, but he agreed to talk with his supervisor about the matter and call me back within the hour and to provide information, as well, about the cost of a monument for my parents’ gravesite.

When I received no call back from him for four days, I called to find out why I had not received the information I had requested about the service and the cost of a monument for my parents.

I was unable to reach him and got the name of his supervisor, Mark Root. He and I talked by telephone on March 2nd. Root told me that in order to bury my parents’ cremated remains together, I would have to pay a second interment fee because this was required by the Texas Department of Banking, a statement I knew was false, and I told him so.

In addition, Root told me that the Department of Banking does not permit interment of cremated remains in a PVC container, nor do SCI rules. The latter statement I agreed with, but I knew the statement about the PVC pipe and the Banking Department was false. I told Root that I was going to contact the Department of Banking about his statements, which I did right after our discussion.

I called Russell Reese at the Department of Banking, the Director of Special Audits for Prepaid Funeral Contracts and Perpetual Care Cemeteries, and relayed the conversation with Mark Root. Mr. Reese said he would immediately call Mark Root to correct his misrepresentations of Banking Department regulations.

In addition to charging an extra interment fee, SCI required that my family buy an urn vault, an outer burial container made of polystyrene or some similar material, and they wanted to charge me to dig a hole in which the urn vault would fit, an “opening and closing fee” as it is called. Together, all charges would be $3,760, in addition to the cost of the granite marker. All of these charges were based on rules that did not exist when my parents bought the plots.

I have been a funeral consumer advocate for the past 18 years on behalf of the Austin Memorial and Burial Information Society, the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) (which I served as a board member for nearly eight years, four of which were as president), and the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Texas.

During my service as president of the FCA Board, I testified at a hearing held by the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging that was investigating fraud in the preneed funeral and cemetery business. Over the years, I have worked closely with the Texas Funeral Service Commission and the Banking Department on issues of common concern, so I am not completely ignorant about funeral and cemetery regulations.

The false representations made to me by Mark Root leave me wondering how many misrepresentations, distortions of federal and state regulations, and outright lies are told by cemetery personnel to families who are not as knowledgeable about such matters as I am when they go to SCI to make arrangements for the interment of their family members.

I would like to resolve the needs and preferences of my family amicably with SCI, but the inexcusable deceit, hostility, and evasion that I have encountered to simple requests that create no liability or demands on its cemetery or its corporation lead me to believe that SCI’s greed is the only force that drives its corporate policies and the behavior of its employees.

On March 10, I spoke by telephone with Scott Leffler, another SCI official, about this matter. He was unwilling to give permission for my family to follow their traditions and wishes regarding the interment of my parents’ cremated remains, though he did say that he would speak to Mr. Root about his false statements that I have reported.

On March 10, 2011, I wrote to Jim Kriegshauser, Managing Director for Funeral and Cemetery Services for SCI’s region that includes both the Austin area and the Beaumont-Port Arthur area. His office is in Spicewood, Texas, located between Marble Falls and Austin. I told him in the letter that I would like to discuss these matters with him. To date, he has not replied.

My parents never imagined 50 years ago that their thoughtful advance planning and payment for four gravesites would one day lead to their oldest son’s being forced to deal with a corporation as avaricious, insensitive, indifferent, and callous to the needs of families as is SCI.

This is a corporation, headquartered in Houston, that spends tens of thousands of dollars each year to ensure that the Texas Legislature does nothing to prevent its continuing exploitation of Texas families. Everyone should be aware that if they choose to do business with SCI, they will be contributing to SCI’s abuse of families everywhere.

[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]

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