I-TEAM Investigation: Cemetery nightmares

Local families accuse cemetery owner of traumatizing them

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Several local families are accusing a local cemetery owner of disgracing the dead. They tell the News4Jax I-TEAM they paid for a beautiful funeral at Beaches Memorial Park in Atlantic Beach, and got nothing but heartache.

The I-TEAM has learned the cemetery's license is expired.

"I would not bury my dog or cat at that cemetery," said Celestine Jones when we interviewed her about what happened during her mother-in-law's graveside service last month at Beaches Memorial Park. She said when they arrived, the cemetery's gate was locked. When an employee opened it to allow the procession to enter, they found no grave had been dug for 77-year-old Johnnie Mae Jones the morning of April 23, 2016.  

"John (the owner) was telling (my husband's') older brother Marcus, that it had rained so much that the ground was too wet and that she would have to be buried in stages and that she would be buried in a couple of hours after the graveside ceremony," Jones said.

Jones said there was a clause in the contract they signed allowing it to be rescheduled in the event it rained, but the family did not believe the ground was too wet, since it was a sunny day. "So now father-in-law married for 62 years has to come back again to relive his wife's death?  Who wants to come back and do that again," said Jones.

The family had scheduled and paid for the service, days earlier and Jones said when they left the church that morning the funeral director called ahead to let the cemetery know they would be there in 30 minutes, which is why Jones said she could not understand why the gate was closed and the grave had not been dug.

Jones' family insisted the burial happen then. She recorded cell phone video that she said shows the ground was not too wet, as the owner had suggested. "As you can see it's very, very, dry," she explained.

Now the family was suspicious, so they asked to see the vault they bought to bury Johnnie Mae Jones' casket inside. She started recording video of the vault, as soon as she noticed it was damaged.  

"This vault has cracks in it, it's not what we ordered," she narrated on the video.  "It's supposed to be a sealed vault and this is an unsealed vault because it has holes in the bottom of it," she described.

We asked her if she thought the cemetery would have buried her mother-in-law in a broken vault that wasn't sealed correctly? "Absolutely, absolutely," she replied.

Jones and her husband, Barry, told us they think the cemetery owner was trying to rip off her family by using a damaged and chipped vault instead of buying a new one and made up the story about wet ground to get rid of the family.

The family called police and said the owner, John Rayan, finally agreed to entomb Johnnie Mae Jones in the mausoleum. But it took more than 5 hours, they said, because a worker had to go to the hardware store to get materials needed to entomb their mother.  Her husband was so overcome with emotion he left before he could say his final goodbye.   

Jones said she asked the owner, "Do you understand that you have to have some type of humility, some kind of grace when it comes to dealing with people's families and their loved ones."  She said he hardly responded and never apologized or showed any sensitivity.

Lillie Bell Jackson's funeral

Pastor Erich Jackson said his family never received an apology for what happened when they buried his aunt in April of 2015. "Horrific, if I had one word to sum it up, it would be horrific," he described when asked about Beaches Memorial Park. 

He said the gate was latched when they arrived for her funeral and they had to wait for someone to allow the procession to enter, even though, the family had scheduled the burial date and paid for it days earlier. 

"We had the contract with us. It's clear as day, he wrote 12:30," explained Jackson. "He gave us no excuse.  They only thing he wanted us to do was to put up our mobile devices and stop recording the actions that were going on," he said. Jackson used his cell phone to record video of cemetery workers rushing to prepare the grave site.

It gets worse, he said. "As they were letting the casket down, he did not seal the casket and the casket was coming open. We kept sharing with him, 'John, the casket is coming open' and he was assuring us the casket was not coming open," he described. Jackson took a picture that clearly shows the casket in the grave, with part of its top cracked open.

"My concern at that point, said Jackson, had we not been there would you have just dumped my relative in this vault, pulled out this casket and used it at one of your own services," Jackson told us.

It's why he said he stayed until the bitter end to watch his aunt's casket be buried. He told us he was stunned when he noticed the dirt used to dig her grave had been dumped on top of a grave right next to hers.

"Eighteen years of being around the funeral industry, I've never seen them pull dirt out of a hole and throw it next to someone's grave next to you with the flowers and the vase. I've never seen that before," he explained.  "They would normally take that dirt put it in a backhoe and place it in another part of the cemetery." Jackson showed us video he said he recorded of the dirt piled on the grave next to his aunt.  You can see flowers marking another person's grave site buried under the pile.   

To add insult to injury, Jackson said his family paid to have his aunt's death date inscribed on her grave site marker. "I went out there the other day to see if it had been done and it still had not been done a year later, No," he said. Jackson was buried in April 2015.

Last Friday, we went to the cemetery to get some answers from John Rayan, the owner. We asked him, "there are people who say you have been very unprofessional and unethical in the way you've handled their burials, anything you have to say about that?" "No, I haven't been," he responded.

When we asked him about the Jones and Jackson services, "Sir, do you have anything to say to these families? They're traumatized, are you even apologetic," He replied 'Yes," but did not elaborate when we explained this was his opportunity to say something to those families.

Rayan called our station 4 days after that interview upset, requesting another opportunity to give his side of the story.  We agreed to meet at the cemetery in Atlantic Beach today, Wednesday, at 9:45 a.m. When we arrived no one answered the door and no one answered when we called the office.  

Rayan called the station while we were still waiting for him and asked to reschedule. We agreed to meet later that day at 1 p.m. for the interview. When we arrived at Beaches Memorial Park, again the door was locked, no one answered. We left two messages explaining we wanted to give him an opportunity to tell his side of the story, no one returned our calls.

We have obtained a stack of complaints about the cemetery filed with the state's Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services. Several families have also called us complaining about the cemetery. We are continuing to investigate.  

If you have a complaint about Beaches Memorial Park in Atlantic Beach, call the I-TEAM at 479-NEWS or send us an email to ITEAM@news4jax.com.

Resources from the Florida Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services:

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