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Duplin County Families Upset Over Local Cemetery's Owner, Policies

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DUPLIN COUNTY, N.C. — Some families in Duplin County are angry with the owner of a local cemetery. They claim temporary markers are being removed, forcing families to buy expensive memorials.

A frustrated Lynette Miracle searches for the grave of her granddaughter. Born three months premature, Chelsea died three weeks after birth. Miracle bought a plot at Devotional Gardens outside Warsaw and placed a temporary marker on the grave. Recently, someone removed the marker.

"You think when you bury them, they can rest in peace and never did I ever think years after you bury them that I'd be in a tug of war with a big company," she said.

Since Miracle bought the grave in 1997, Devotional Gardens has gone through three owners. The cemetery now has a policy that temporary markers must be replaced by bronze, permanent markers within 30 days of burial.

Miracle blames the current owner, Bill Gaffney, for removing temporary markers without any notification so his company can force families to pay for memorials and extra maintenance fees.

"It's like money here, money here, money here. How much money do you keep making off a person?" she said.

WRAL could not find anyone from the cemetery during regular business hours, but Gaffney talked to WRAL by phone. First, he denied any of his employees took the marker, then he told the station:

"We absolutely, catagorically will not take up temporary markers until we have communicated with the family."

Sheila Lewis said she was never notified when the temporary marker was pulled from her son's grave.

"When you're out there, it's like you're empty anyway and it's some peace of mind you get by going and visiting and talking," Lewis said. "When you go and it's not there, it's really heartbreaking."

Lewis claims once she made it clear she planned to pay $1,100 in insurance money for a monument, the marker was put back immediately.

"As long as they knew I was going to buy a marker, everything was going to be OK," Lewis said.

Miracle said it is not the money but the principle that has kept her from putting down a permanent memorial. She believes the cemetery's demand for monument and maintenance fees amounts to extortion.

"I thought when I bought this grave that I owned this grave," Miracle said.

Gaffney compares the issue to a neighborhood covenant saying,

"It's not right for these people who put a nice memorial there and she have that tacky thing on the grave. It's like buying a brick home and putting a mobile home next to it."

"The graves were compared to trailer houses and homes. It was just the end of the conversation with me," Miracle said.

Gaffney said he'll gladly put another temporary memorial here, but he said a 30-day clock would then start ticking and Miracle would be required to purchase some sort of bronze memorial and also pay the maintenance fee. Otherwise, the grave will go unmarked.

Miracle said she is now willing to compromise, just so she will not have to keep searching for her granddaughter's grave.

"It's like reliving it again, but I don't expect them to keep making money off my grandchild," she said.

According to the North Carolina Cemetery Commission, people who buy grave plots do not buy property rights, so cemeteries can legally dictate what markers are placed there.


Cullen Browder, Reporter
Gil Hollingsworth, Photographer
Kamal Wallace, Web Editor

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