Cemetery cited after rats harm bodies waiting to be prepped

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WREG) — The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance has issued another fine against a Memphis cemetery over rat infestation.

According to the department, Forest Hill Funeral Home and Memorial Park, owned by StoneMor, allowed a rat infestation to go on for nearly a year inside their body preparation building at one of their locations.

The rats caused harm to two bodies in their care, according to a complaint submitted to the state by a Forest Hill manager who has since resigned.

State officials presented their findings during a May 11 meeting in front of the Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers.

“The respondent establishment has an infestation of rodents and the owner management has not taken steps to mitigate or resolve the issue,” said a presenter at the board meeting.

WREG also obtained the complaint submitted to the state by the former manager, who said the rat problem began in June 2020 and continued until at least March 2021, allowing rats to eat away at bodies in their care.

“One family was notified and the other family was not,” the presenter said.

The former manager said he reported the issue to his superiors multiple times, but they never did anything.

“Despite the warning from the ex-employee who was employed at the time, the respondent continued to use the preparation room,” said the presenter at the board meeting.

When WREG visited the cemetery in May, a note covered the door marking the entrance to the body preparation building. It called the room a “sacred space” where loved ones come to be prepared for the most difficult event in a family’s life. The sign pledged a “never-ending commitment of respect.”

But outside, the building showed signs of deterioration. It was covered in excess insulation and had a cracked façade. There were also extra headstones left outside and overgrown with weeds.

According to previous reporting, seven state disciplinary actions have been leveled against Forest Hill in the last year.

“It makes me feel pretty bad because I’m gonna be buried there and I want it to look nice,” said Merdis Pewitt, whose husband is buried at the cemetery.

Pennsylvania-based parent company StoneMor settled with that state’s attorney general last year over deceptive business practices.

In response to the Memphis complaint, a StoneMor official said earlier this month that they were flying in a team to revamp operations and replacing all management.

A statement from the company called the rat infestation an “isolated situation … that was handled immediately.”

“It’s ridiculous for a business in this profession to let something like that happen,” said customer Eddie Hayslett, whose wife died last summer. He is still waiting for a permanent headstone for her grave.

“You call, half the time don’t even get a reception. Get a voicemail,” he said. “No return calls.”

A temporary stone has since been put in place. “After you contacted, the ball was rolling,” Hayslett told WREG.

Hayslett said he’s relieved he did not use Forest Hill for funeral services in addition to burial.

“Knowing what I know now, if I had to do it again I would go somewhere else,” he said.

The Board fined StoneMor $14,000 for the rodent incidents and required them to fix the building and refund impacted families.

StoneMor is also at risk of losing its license to operate in Tennessee, officials said.

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