As many as 2,000 bodies have been buried at the site of an old roadway that was ripped up and not even covered with grass at the Restlawn Memorial Park on Ribault Scenic Drive on the Northside.
The new owner of the cemetery, Mark Riposta, said he's in the process of letting those families know that their loved ones were improperly buried.
He said the practice had been going on from 2007 until October 2013. Several families are upset that their relatives' final resting places were in disarray and now have to be disturbed.
They say it's despicable and is anything but the eternal care they wanted for their loved ones. It appears the old owners just needed more room and buried people wherever.
"He was a wonderful person. He was loved, got along with everybody, everybody loved him," said Charlene McCrimager, whose 24-year-old son Ronnie Washington was buried at Restlawn. "I'm sorry. It is very hard."
Washington was killed in August and it's still so tough for his mom to handle. She said she goes to his grave nearly every day but finds his headstone sitting on the ground, resting in dirt. It's just one of countless examples of what people say is a shoddy job by the previous owners.
There's a paved road that once went all the way around the cemetery but now stops at one point. It's clear that somebody ripped it out and buried more people where it used to be.
To make matters worse, there's not even grass over their graves, just sand.
That's not allowed, according to state laws and regulations. So Washington's body and so many more buried there will have to be exhumed and moved somewhere else.
"It is not right at all, because for them to say they have to put his body back up, it's like I'm reliving it all over again, for my son to have to be put somewhere else," McCrimager said.
Riposta, who took over a few months ago after the property went into foreclosure, said the past owners, Southside Christian Charities Inc., did not go by the book.
"Since Oct. 5, there has not been one person buried in the road, because the spaces are here," Riposta said.
He said someone took a backhoe and ripped the road up and put bodies in those spots. He said other families complained they couldn't find their loved ones' grave site. Other complaints included elderly people and those with disabilities who couldn't make it back to their relatives' graves because there was no longer a road.
"There is no precedent," Riposta said. "I have done this, like I mentioned to you, for 36 years. I've never seen this happen before. Never."
He said no matter how much time and money it takes, he's going to fix the problems.
"The costs that are involved are tremendous," Riposta said. "They are triple what I thought it was going to have been. So it's amazing. But at the end of the day, we are going to have a community that is comfortable bringing their loved ones to the cemetery and to Restlawn south."
Riposta showed more property he's bought nearby where he said he can bury people's loved ones the right way.
"They shouldn't be, 'I can't find this person, or they're buried in the road and I can't get to them,'" he said.
Restlawn workers have already started to exhume some of the uncertified graves, they said each with the family's approval. Now, they're reaching out to others whose loved ones need to be moved.
Riposta said he's paying for all the costs without asking for the families or taxpayers to chip in.