TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The News4Jax I-TEAM has learned that investigators have not told the board that regulates funeral homes and cemeteries in Florida about all of the recent complaints against an Atlantic Beach funeral home and cemetery that families say has been disgracing the dead.
Complaints obtained by the I-TEAM show that the Florida Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services has been aware of problems at Beaches Memorial Park and its sister company, First Coast Funeral Home, since at least 2010.
However, the cemetery wasn’t even on the board’s agenda during its most recent meeting in Tallahassee, on June 30.
The I-TEAM attended that meeting, as did northeast Florida residents who have been through painful ordeals with the cemetery. Some of them were cut off when they tried to tell the board their stories.
Virmia Sims has been dealing with issues with the cemetery for the last nine months. When she tried to speak before the state board, she was told she had to speak in generic terms.
“There’s families that cry every night, I cry every night, I don’t know if my sister’s buried or not,” Sims said. “How would you like to go to bed at night know that one of your loved ones might not be entombed, that they’ve been removed and they’ve been cremated and tossed aside?”
At that point, Sims was interrupted, and told she was starting to get into the details of her case. An attorney for the board said they are concerned with due process, and concerned about “poisoning” the minds of board members before they have a chance to act. The attorney explained that because Sims’ case is an open investigation, it would be unfair to hear just her side, and not the cemetery’s.
That explanation infuriated Sims, who filed her complaint against the cemetery last fall. She said that not only did the state investigator not take the complaint seriously, but said the case was closed with no explanation.
It was only reopened after the I-TEAM started asking state investigators why there have been so many complaints against the Atlantic Beach cemetery, without any enforcement, prior to last week’s emergency order telling Beaches Memorial Park not to make any new funeral contracts.
“We’re not talking about 10 cases, we’re talking about 50-60 cases here,” Sims told the board. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. These are the same complaints over and over again -- families being hurt, manipulated and taken for their money, and no one seems to care.”
Sims had to get a court order last October to force cemetery owner Amanda Rayan and her husband, John, to allow her to inter her mother in one of the five crypts she bought and paid for years ago. The I-TEAM discovered the state investigator’s own report last November determined Sims legally owned the crypts, and was charged for services she had already paid for. Still, the investigation was closed.
Also speaking before the board was Al Bourgeois, equally frustrated with the complaint process.
“I filed a complaint on May 25 and my understanding is, 30 days I’ll get a reply or something like that,” Bourgeois told the board. “It’s been 32 days, and I haven’t gotten a reply back.”
Bourgeois wanted to know why it has taken more than a month just to process his complaint. He said his family is heartbroken, because his mother’s name plate has still not been installed on her crypt, even though he paid for it in January, and was promised it would be in place by March. Nearly seven months later, it is still not there.
“It’s kind of bad, the situation where we have to keep our mouth shut,” Bourgeois said.
“But there’s a lot of people out there…” he added, before walking away from the podium, tearful.
The I-TEAM has discovered the state has received complaints like Bourgeois’ for at least two years.
Sayed Alamy filed a complaint against Beaches Memorial Park in July of last year, after he said he received nothing but excuses from the Rayans for months, about his mother’s grave marker. He said he was promised it would be delivered in six to eight weeks, after he paid $3,500. It took 10 months for the marker to be delivered.
The state investigated Alamy’s case, but closed it, without ever presenting it to the board for disciplinary action.
The board was also never told about a complaint filed by the family of Eugenio Puangco. His daughter, Maria Curcio, filed a complaint last August, after she said Amanda Rayan gave her nothing but excuses for a year, as to why her dad’s memorial bench had still not been delivered to his graveside.
The state closed that investigation before the bench was even delivered. It was finally installed earlier this month, only after the I-TEAM questioned Amanda Rayan about why it hadn’t been done in nearly two years.
The state employee in charge of these investigations, Division Director Doug Shropshire, did have something to say to the board, after Sims and Bourgeois tried to tell their stories.
“I really sympathize with these consumers and their extreme frustration, and all I can say is the division has numerous complaints open and we’re very grateful to Ms. Waugh’s work and her expose,” Shropshire said. “It’s flushed out a lot of complaints and it’s helping us tremendously and all I can say is that we are working on this. It’s our highest priority at this point.”
Following the board meeting, the I-TEAM did speak with its vice chair, to find out who is going to help families who have had problems with Beaches Memorial Park. The board member was empathetic, but said the board can’t rule on complaints that it doesn’t know about.
It is up to state investigators who receive those complaints to decide if they should be presented to the board for possible reprimand. The I-TEAM has learned nothing has been presented to the board in years.
Asked what to tell customers who have contracts with First Coast Funeral Home or Beaches Memorial Park, the state sent this statement:
"Please have consumers who contact you with Beaches-related pre-need contract questions contact our office. In some instances, consumers can obtain a partial or full refund for the amounts paid for the pre-need contract from the Florida Preneed Consumer Protection Trust Fund. We have designated an individual who shall personally serve as the lead for all Beaches-related Consumer Protection Trust Fund claims. Consumers should mention that they are calling with Beaches/First Coast Funeral Home questions so that they may be directed toward the specified person."
If anyone has a complaint about Beaches Memorial Park or its sister company, First Coast Funeral Home, they can contact the I-TEAM at firstname.lastname@example.org or 904-479-NEWS.
Anyone who has questions about existing contracts can call the state’s Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services at 850-413-3039, or toll-free in Florida at 800-323-2627.
Complaints against the funeral home can be filed on the division's website.