ROME, Ga. — The owner of several Georgia cemeteries faces one of the largest financial penalties proposed by state regulators in recent memory.
This week, the Georgia Secretary of State’s office sent cease and desist orders to StoneMor, Inc., which owns seven cemeteries in north Georgia.
The orders demand the owner address a long list of violations identified by state investigators who uncovered poor conditions at its cemeteries, including broken headstones, sunken graves and poor grounds keeping.
The orders propose StoneMor pay $753,000 in fines if it doesn’t fix the problems. In most cases, the state levied the maximum the law is allowed to penalize for each property.
“I have not smiled this big in a long, long time. I’m so excited. I don’t even have words,” said Barbara Penson, Floyd County’s Clerk of Superior Court, reacting to the proposed fines.
11Alive's investigative team, The Reveal, profiled Penson in April, when she and others form the community shared their frustration over the conditions of Oaknoll Memorial Gardens, Floyd Memory and Sunset Hill Memorial Gardens. All are owned by StoneMore, Inc.
Penson and others have documented their complaints on a Facebook page since 2017, often sharing stories and pictures headstones run over by vehicles, new graves with no sod on top the dirt and people buried in the wrong plot. Her father’s headstone was once damaged, too.
In many cases, families claim StoneMor ignored their complaints when they asked the company to fix the problem.
“I had no hope really. I didn’t think anything was going to happen,” Penson explained.
The proposed orders credit 11Alive for alerting the Secretary of State’s office about the complaints.
“In March 2021, the Division received a tip from the Rome, Georgia office of the 11Alive News Network, alleging a series of care and maintenance failures,” the order read. “11Alive provided a link to a Facebook group devoted to complaints regarding maintenance of Oaknoll, along with two other Rome, Georgia cemeteries."
11Alive also shared video of damaged headstones and graves to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger during an interview.
"We can level charges and we will after we finish up with our investigation,” Raffensperger said in response to seeing the video. “We hear their concerns and we share their concerns.”
According to the orders, state investigators described some of the disrepair as “rampant.” The investigators described seeing “markers and headstones that are damaged or in a state of disrepair” and “several graves were sinking.”
StoneMor declined to respond the state’s findings and proposed fines when 11Alive requested an interview.
"First and foremost, our mission is to serve our families in their time of need, and we take the allegations in the proposed orders very seriously,” said Lindsey Granson, StoneMor’s senior vice president of sales and marketing in an email. “We will note, however, that the proposed orders are just that -- a proposal to be discussed, negotiated and determined at a hearing.”
During its investigation, the state said an inspector submitted a questionnaire to the company asking how it processes complaints and if it used any system to address maintenance work orders. The state said it never received a response from StoneMor.
Making proposed orders public is somewhat rare. The state typically handles negotiating fines behind closed doors, but Noula Zaharis, Director of the Securities and Cemeteries Division in the Office of the Secretary of State, said the state felt the seriousness of the violations were important to disclose to the public.
“The Secretary of State’s office is proud to help ensure that the departed loved ones of the people of Georgia get the care they were promised,” Zaharis said. “No one should have to worry that the last wishes of those they care about are not being honored.”
Penson credits 11Alive’s Reveal investigation for the state’s swift actions.
“Were it not for Channel 11Alive, we would still be where we started five years ago, begging for help,” Penson said. “It sounds like our secretary of state has heard us.”
StoneMor has 10 days to schedule a hearing to address the violations. If it doesn’t, the fines are permanent.
The Reveal is an investigative show exposing inequality, injustice, and ineptitude created by people in power throughout Georgia and across the country.