Instead of a peaceful place of relection, the Gardens of Faith Cemetery in Lumberton has become a catalyst for controversy.
Grief has turned to anger for families like the Ratleys. Years ago, Mary Ratley bought perpetual care grave plots at the cemetery for herself and her husband, Hamp. When he died last year, Mary paid nearby Floyd Mortuary and Crematory for a monument.
While the company was installing the stone, cemetery workers called police. They claimed Floyd was trespassing because the family refused to pay 53 cents a square inch for the right to put the monument down, which amounts to over $600.
"They just want their money and their bottom line. They don't care about our grief," said Karen Ratley, who lost her father-in-law. "The way they were treating us was heinous. It was unscrupulous."
"Well, I was in tears. When I see his name, I feel like I've been to see him, but it's been turmoil," Mary said.
"The bottom line as far as I'm concerned is this is a way to extort money from the consumer," funeral home owner Terry Floyd said.
Bill Gaffney, whose South Carolina company bought Gardens of Faith last year, fired back in a phone interview with WRAL. He said,
"Terry Floyd is a direct competitor. He wants our business and he's running a smear campaign to put us out of business."
The situation got so heated with the funeral home that the cemetery actually put up steel posts at both entrances to keep trucks from hauling in monuments without authorization. The problem was the barricades were so close together many cars could not even get through.
Admitting the posts were a bad public relations move, Gaffney removed them. The cemetery eventually went to court and won a temporary injunction to keep Floyd off the property unless families paid the extra fees.
"Unfortunately as the law is written in North Carolina, these tricks seem to be acceptable," Floyd said.
Gaffney explained that even though families may have bought plots years ago, new costs must apply when permanent markers go in. Gaffney said,
"We have to maintain these monuments. We are trying to run our cemetery profitably, ethically, and honestly. Our costs are fair and dead in the middle."
Under North Carolina law, private cemeteries can really charge whatever they want, but checking in and around Raleigh, WRAL found almost every single for-profit cemetery charges a flat installation fee of $35 to $75, not $600.
The difference is flat fee cemeteries require the monument dealers to maintain the markers. Gaffney's cemeteries take over that responsibility, but that is no consolation for Mary Ratley.
"He was a special person to me and I wanted to do the very best for him, but it's been hard," Mary said.
There has been a lingering battle between monument dealers and cemeteries for years over installation costs. WRAL found that because of complaints from consumers, more and more cemeteries are now turning to the flat fee.
In fact, in states like Georgia, it is the law. Now the cemetery industry is closely watching to see how this Robeson County case turns out in court.