Troubled Memphis cemetery cited for rats causing harm to bodies waiting for preparation

Problem Solvers

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance has issued another fine against a troubled Memphis cemetery.

According to the department, Forest Hill Funeral Home and Memorial Park, owned by a parent company called StoneMor, allowed a rat infestation to go on for nearly a year inside their body preparation building at the Whitten Road location.

The rats caused harm to two bodies in their care, according to a complaint submitted to the state by a former manager.

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.

The WREG Problem Solvers also obtained the complaint submitted to the state by a Forest Hill manager. He 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.

He 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.

As a result, the manager resigned.

According to the board, it happened with two different bodies.

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

When WREG visited the cemetery’s Whitten Road location 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 on the outside, the building had signs of deterioration, covered in excess insulation and a cracked façade. We also spotted also extra headstones, overgrown with weeds and left out in the sun.

No repair crews were present during the Problem Solvers’ visit.

Eventually a man identifying himself as a manager came over and asked us to leave. We asked if the building was shut down.

“I can’t answer that question, but if you’d like to give me your information I can pass it along,” he said.

“Is there anything you’d like to say to the community about what the board says happened here?” we asked.

“No, ma’am, but if you’d like to pass your information to me I will pass it along to someone who can be in touch right away,” he said.

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In previous reporting, the Problem Solvers found seven state disciplinary actions levels against Forest Hill in the last year and helped Merdis Pewitt get answers about the upkeep issues at the cemetery’s Whitehaven location.

“It makes me feel pretty bad because I’m gonna be buried there and I want it to look nice,” Pewitt said.

Forest Hill is owned by a Pennsylvania-based company called StoneMor, which settled with that state’s attorney general last year over deceptive business practices.

In response, a StoneMor official told us earlier this month they were making big changes in Memphis by flying in a team to revamp operations and replacing all management.

After our latest visit, they sent a statement from the same representative, who 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,” customer Eddie Hayslett said.

His wife died in the summer of 2020. Since then, he still has not gotten a headstone for her grave.

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

The Problem Solvers helped him get a temporary stone in place.

“After you contacted, the ball was rolling,” he said.

But after this latest revelation, he’s relieved they 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,” Hayslett 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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