Burial ground draws complaints: Odd Fellows Cemetery in Camden under scrutiny

Odd Fellows Cemetery is located at 35 Rising Sun Road in Camden-Wyoming, and owned by the same company with sites in Smyrna and Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

CAMDEN — A second Kent County cemetery is under investigation after recent allegations by plot holders, authorities confirmed last week.

Levy Court Commissioner Jody Sweeney said he received “probably four or five” complaints from constituents in late September about the Odd Fellows burial grounds at 35 Rising Sun Road in Camden-Wyoming.

A Delaware Attorney General’s Office case file for official complaints resulted. Mr. Sweeney has encouraged any disgruntled customers to file reports.

Last month, the AG’s Office opened a case file to address allegations made by patrons of Sharon Hills Memorial Park west of Dover, owned by the same company as Odd Fellows.

“The common denominator is that they are both owned by the same company and managed by the same people,” the commissioner said. “The best way to fix something like this is to shine light on it.”

As of Wednesday, the AG said approximately 10 complaints had been filed about Sharon Hills and two for Odd Fellows,

An attempt to reach Delmarva Cemeteries Management spokesman Louis Ottaviano for comment was unsuccessful.

In late August, a group started the ”Sharon Hills Cemetery Friends and Support” Facebook page to air concerns about issues with the cemetery,
including alleged upkeep problems. The public page had over 500 members as of Wednesday, said Cheryl Young, who started the site with Debbie Virdin.

When contacted by the Delaware State News for comment in September a staff member answering the telephone briefly defended Sharon Hills before abruptly hanging up on a reporter.

Though owned by the same company, Sharon Hills and Odd Fellows are separate cases that Ms. Young hopes to keep apart. Odd Fellows supporters recently began posting grievances on the Sharon Hills page, which Ms. Young worries may cause confusion.

“With all the interest now about Odd Fellows, we want to try to keep them separate,” Ms. Young said, noting that she is sympathetic to the other cemetery’s concerns.

No cemetery regulations

While all cemeteries must be registered in the First State, the Delaware Cemetery Board provides administrative support with no regulatory authority.

“There are no applicable state regulations regarding cemetery upkeep,” Delaware Division of Public Health spokeswoman Andrea Wojcik said, noting that city and county agency code enforcement may apply.

Also, Ms. Wojcik said, “All concerns regarding theft or vandalism of a cemetery are directed to be reported to the local police.”

When the DPH receives complaints, they are referred to police, the AG’s Consumer Protection Unit, the Better Business Bureau, or city/county officials, DPH officials said.

Cemetery-related concerns are not unusual, according to the DPH.

“We do get a lot of questions regarding cemeteries as a loved one’s care after they’ve passed is important to families, so if we aren’t the right place for answers we try to point people to the right resource,” Ms. Wojcik said.

The AG unit reviewing the complaints had not yet replied, Ms. Young said Wednesday.

“We are looking into the issues raised in the complaints we’ve received but are otherwise unable to comment on pending investigations,” said Carl Kanefsky, public information officer for the Delaware Department of Justice. He reported there is no deadline imposed for receiving information on cases.

Mr. Kanefsky said the DOJ opened the files after receiving “several complaints regarding the cemeteries raising issues that might involve matters within our enforcement authority.”

Various issues

Ms. Young claimed that Sharon Hills “is starting to weed whack and mow lawns, but haven’t powerwashed monuments or fixed sidewalks, and there are still dead trees around and vases not replaced. At least we can now see the broken sidewalks we’re walking on.”

A landscape worker cleans debris at Odd Fellows Cemetery near Camden. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

One constituent contacted Mr. Sweeney to report that Odd Fellows had supposedly lost all records to eight family plots at the site, he said. Mr. Sweeney advised cemetery customers to register their gravesites with the Kent County Recorder of Deeds for $35.

“That way there’s an electronically backed up set of documents that aren’t going anywhere,” he said.

According to Mr. Sweeney, he heard claims that some headstones moved for mowing were allegedly not placed back in their proper spots, grave markers were pulled from the ground and piled in a heap, and some purchased plots were supposedly found to be used for other interments.

The Odd Fellows case number is 18-1700524 and Sharon Hills is number 18-17004613. Complaints can be filed online with the CPU at attorneygeneral.delaware.gov/fraud/cpu/complaint/.

Case numbers should be listed on the first page of the complaint form to facilitate the handling of the complaint, according to the AG’s Office.
Similar cases involving cemeteries arise “infrequently,” Mr. Kanefsky said.

“A cemetery is a business that is subject to general consumer protection laws, like the Consumer Fraud Act or Deceptive Trade Practices Act, enforced by our office based on consumer complaints.”

The AG’s Office has authority through Title 12, Section 3554 of the Delaware Code to inspect records of sales of perpetual care burial lots.

In March 2016, the AG’s Office ordered Sharon Hills to restore missing urns to customers in exchange for halting prosecution of employees initially charged with offenses by the Delaware State Police.

Twenty-three urns reported as missing to police were eventually replaced by last summer, the AG said.

The company also operates Odd Fellows Cemetery in the Smyrna area.

Distressed cemeteries

The DPH regulates how bodies are buried due to the link with potential health concerns, Ms. Wojcik said.

According to the DPH, the state’s cemetery board administers a Distressed Cemetery Fund. The five-member board is appointed by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services.

The board is also authorized to:

• Promulgate rules and regulations for the registration of cemeteries

• Designate a cemetery as “distressed” based on standards set forth in the rules and regulations

• Authorize payment to a distressed cemetery from the Fund

• Require a thorough accounting of each recipient’s use of money from the Fund

• Refer cemetery complaints to appropriate State agencies or other organizations

More information on registering a cemetery or the Distressed Cemetery Fund is available online at dhss.delaware.gov.

Ms. Wojcik said the cemetery fund debuted in 2009 “to provide for the preservation of cemeteries, including small and older cemeteries that lack funds for long-term care and maintenance, by supporting repair and improvement projects that are outside normal maintenance activities.

“The fund is maintained through the receipt of a $2 portion of the cost of each death certificate issued and cemetery registration fees received. Individuals and organizations may also make contributions or bequests to the Fund.”

In July DPH announced “changes designed to make it easier and more attractive for cemetery owners/volunteers to apply for Distressed Cemetery funds,” Ms. Wojcik said.

“The board increased the maximum award amount to $15,000 from $10,000, and reduced the waiting period between applications from two years, to every 18 months from the date the previous award was received.”

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