Bartow man buried in wrong space at city-owned cemetery


BARTOW, Fla. – Two years ago, Christopher Paul stood at his father's graveside in Bartow's Wildwood Cemetery as Jerry Paul was laid to rest with full military honors.

He walked away feeling comforted, he said, knowing that his father, a Vietnam veteran, was at peace.

He didn't know it would be short-lived.

A year later, Paul and his wife, Sara, learned that Jerry Paul had been buried in a space the city had sold to someone else, unleashing a whirlwind of emotion and legal posturing that remains unresolved.

"We buried him once. We aren't doing it again," Chris Paul said. "I feel like I've failed him and have been abused by the city."

Deborah Tate, who owns the space where Paul is buried, has told city officials she doesn't want to sell the grave site she purchased years ago to be near her parents.

"I sympathize with the other family," she said, "but this is not my mistake."

For now, Jerry Paul remains there, caught in a tug-of-war.

City Attorney Sean Parker said there's no question the mistake lies with the city.

"I don't have a good explanation for this except that it was an honest mistake," he said. "The city staff made the error, and wherever that error may lie, I can't undo what's happened. There's no way of getting around the bottom line that the gentleman was buried in Deborah Tate's space, and she wants it. The question becomes: How do we remedy it?"

It's the same dilemma Valisa Grant faced a year ago in the same cemetery when she learned her grand-uncle, Charlie Smith, who had died seven years earlier, had been buried in a space owned by someone else, and the owner would be needing it soon.

"I hadn't saved the documents because he'd been buried - I didn't think I'd need them," she said. "Then this happened. It's hurtful. You put somebody to rest, and the last thing you want to have to do is to deal with something like this."

Last August, city crews exhumed Smith's remains and moved them across the cemetery, away from his mother and sister, three days before Lucille Davis was buried in the space he'd occupied for seven years.

"We watched them dig him up," said Grant, a hospice nurse. "It was like losing him all over again. I felt like I had let him down." 

Bartow isn't alone in grappling with cemetery errors. In recent years, similar incidents have been discovered in city-owned cemeteries in Lake Wales and Haines City. Linda Bourgeois, the city clerk in Haines City, said three errors were discovered during an on-site comparison of the city's records with actual gravesites, and those have resulted in relocations. Another dispute involves whether a gravesite was sold back to the city.

Lake Wales encountered one error two years ago and relocated that grave to the space adjacent to it, said City Clerk Jennifer Nanek.

In Bartow, the Pauls said they had purchased the gravesite from the city April 25, 2017, the day Jerry Paul died. At the cemetery, they were led to an area where, they said, they were told eight adjoining spaces were available. They thought they had purchased the one in the center for her father-in-law, Sara Paul said, anticipating they would buy the other seven later so the family could be buried together. A cemetery employee staked out the gravesite they'd chosen.

"He staked it out while we were there," she said. "He was right in the middle."

A year later, just days after the headstone company sought approval to install Paul's monument, the family got a phone call from the city.

"They were saying (his space) was not what we had purchased, and that we'd purchased a single plot 12 to 15 feet from there, in the same row," she said. "But we'd watched him stake out the plot where he was buried." 

According to the city clerk's records, the space where Jerry Paul should have been buried, based on the site identified on his deed, was four spaces south of where he was interred, and the end of a row.

The employee believed to be responsible for the error has retired, according to city records, and the city now sells burial sites only through the city clerk's office, not the cemetery office, to ensure accuracy. The city also is continuing its review of historic records to catalog every prior sale and burial, said City Clerk Jacki Poole.

After learning of the error, the Pauls asked the city in May 2018 to reimburse them $7,745, representing the cemetery costs at Jerry Paul's funeral, to include a new vault and reimbursement for the headstone and casket. They also wanted his remains left where they were. When they received no response, they called the city and were told their letter hadn't been received, Sara Paul said.

The couple sent a second letter to the city five months later, and Parker called with an offer to relocate his remains at the city's expense, including moving the existing casket and vault to an area of the city-owned cemetery where other family members eventually could purchase burial sites nearby.

"The idea of moving him, to them, is very emotional," Parker said. "I understand that, and I really want to do right by these people. There's no getting around the bottom line that this gentleman is buried in Mrs. Tate's space." 

Sara Paul said the city's offer failed to recognize the emotional toll the events have taken on her family.

"The city needs to own up to what they've done," she said. "We want to make sure this doesn't happen to anybody else."

The Pauls have hired Lakeland lawyer David Dismuke, who has notified the city that the Pauls may pursue a lawsuit if the dispute can't be resolved. He said any settlement would be predicated on where Jerry Paul is buried.

"If he has to be moved, that will have a bearing on the value of the case," he said.

The city has turned the matter over to its liability insurance lawyers.

"This has never been about money," Sara Paul said. "This has always been about the city doing the right thing, and about making sure this doesn't happen to another family. Ideally, we want him to remain where he is. It's traumatizing to think about digging him up, after he'd received full military honors at his funeral."

For her husband, the issue extends even beyond principle.

"It's sacrilegious," he said. "The place where he's buried is consecrated ground, and we have to disturb that. That's something the city shouldn't take lightly."