Families want answers on missing burial markers
Restlawn Memorial Cemetery is owned by Southside Christian Ministries
It is a final sendoff you give a loved one after they've died, and it's a special way to remember them for the living. But Restlawn Memorial Cemetery has lost burial markers for at least four people and admits it has no idea where they are.
Family members want answers and they want the cemetery to be held accountable, but they say they have run into dead end after dead end. They've turned to Channel 4 for help.
Helen Todd watched as the cemetery stuck a stick into the ground trying to find something buried beneath. She says her parents deserve more respect. Her mother and father's gravesites disappeared two months ago and her family wants answers.
"Truly, truly it's devastating to come out, where even is their marker we paid for? Where's the beautiful monument, where's the vase that we would put flowers in? It's gone, it's gone," said Todd as she fought back tears.
As the parents of 10 children, the Pahars were well loved. They died in 1970 and 1978. Even in their deaths, the couple was well taken care of. Their children selected side-by-side gravesites and markers, even a marble bench for the family's weekly visits. But when Todd's sister came to visit two months ago, none of that was there.
"They're our mom and dad and we put them here because we thought they'd be happy here, be taken care of and that this would never happen," said Todd.
But it did happen. And now, even the Chairman of Southside Christian Ministries, which owns the cemetery, is at a loss.
Channel 4's Emily Turner asked, "How did this happen?"
"We have no idea," said Pastor Harold Rollinson, chairman of Southside Christian Ministries.
"But it happened since you guys have owned the property," said Turner.
"Exactly, but you've got 50 acres here so you wouldn't know what's happening on all 50 acres," said Rollinson.
The nonprofit Southside Christian Ministries bought Restlawn back in 2007. The cemetery is on Ribault Scenic Drive off Lem Turner. It has been plagued with problems. Channel 4 has done a number of stories about the decaying decor and unkempt gravesites over the years, but it wasn't until a story with Betty McDuffey that Channel 4 learned graves were disappearing.
"I'm not going to have no peace until I hear something. I got to know something cause they didn't deserve that," said McDuffey (pictured, right).
Her two children, ages 15 and 10, were murdered in 1987, a case which is still unsolved. McDuffey used her last $1,000 to bury them in a single grave and buy their headstone. She can't find any of it now.
"I went out there and I asked them where my children grave was the guy went and stuck something in the ground and said they'd call me back and they never called me," said McDuffey.
It's the same thing Rollinson and his crew did the day we went with Helen Todd to find her family, which they think they found.
"Now if anybody wants to stick their hand down there and feel the top of the vault, they can," said Rollinson.
But what if Channel 4 hadn't come out to help Todd and her family and what about McDuffey? Both say the cemetery has refused to make the issue right. Rollinson says that's because the mess up may not be their fault.
"We are not out here 24 hours so people come out here and all kinds of strange things happen in cemeteries," said Rollinson.
"But aren't you still responsible for what happens?" asked Emily.
"Not at 12 o'clock at night when people come through the gate or when we are closed," responded Rollinson.
So if the owners don't hold themselves accountable, who will? There is a state agency that regulates cemeteries but it says Restlawn doesn't fall under its control because it is owned by a charitable organization. It says the only restitution for those whose loved ones are missing is to pay out of pocket and sue.
"Our mom and dad aren't there. It's just their remains, but it's still our mom and dad. I mean we feel they're in heaven and one day we will meet them again, but right here on this Earth, that's all we have, left of our mom and dad," said Todd.
Members of the Todd family aren't sure if they will sue or not. But we checked and others have sued. In fact recently, an 83-year-old woman won an $85,000 settlement for a similar issue.
Todd tells Channel 4 that Rollinson did contact her the morning of November 14, the day this story aired. Todd says Rollinson told her he has 20 days to handle the problem and is doing the best he can. Rollinson told Todd the money used to upkeep the cemetery is tied up in a trust controlled by the cemetery's former owners. Court records show the two are in a legal battle over it.