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Woman sues cemetery that filled plot next to her husband — for the second time

Lucille Rembert tends to her husband’s grave at Royal Palm Cemetery on Monday. She purchased a plot next to his in 1990 and since then her plot has been filled twice with other people.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Lucille Rembert tends to her husband’s grave at Royal Palm Cemetery on Monday. She purchased a plot next to his in 1990 and since then her plot has been filled twice with other people.

ST. PETERSBURG — Four years ago, Lucille Rembert brought flowers to her husband's grave at Royal Palm Cemetery.

But as she looked down, she started to cry. Another woman had been buried next to him — in her spot.

"I said, 'Oh no, not again,' " she recalled recently.

In 1995, the cemetery buried a man in the plot she bought next to her husband. She agreed to move her husband's body to a place with room for her.

Now they wanted to move him again.

This week, after fighting unsuccessfully with the cemetery for four years to get her burial spot back, Rembert, 61, sued the company that owns Royal Palm.

The state Division of Funeral, Cemetery & Consumer Services also is investigating the cemetery and its owners, Work & Son Inc. Agency spokesperson Nina Banister would not describe the investigation, but she did say they received a complaint from Rembert.

"I can't speak about an ongoing investigation," Banister said, "but in general … when a burial plot is sold, it is the property of that consumer."

Gary Hock, Royal Palm's manager, declined to be interviewed.

The 88-year-old cemetery, which sits on three blocks off First Avenue S and is a resting place for more than 22,000, has had its share of burial errors and lawsuits.

• • •

In the mid 1990s, hundreds of parents of children buried in the cemetery's Babyland accused the cemetery of digging up their babies and tossing them aside to make way for an underground waterline. Many of the graves were old, but family members — even a woman in her 80s who'd had a stillborn baby in her teens — still visited the graves and noticed the headstones had been moved. That case settled out of court.

In more recent years, Work & Son, the owner for about the past eight years, has angered some of the religious groups that own plots at Royal Palm.

In 2003, Congregation B'Nai Israel of St. Petersburg hired an attorney after learning the cemetery planned to sell plots in a sanctified area to non-Jews. And in 2005, the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Congregation of St. Petersburg and Vicinity Inc. accused Royal Palm of reselling plots it had bought years before for church members. Both cases settled out of court.

More recently, the family of a man named John Houston, who died in 2005, claimed his body was buried in one spot but his headstone installed in another.

Royal Palm still refuses to move him to his family's plot, where he was supposed to be buried, said Chelsie Lamie, who represents Houston's family.

"Since 2005, the cemetery has not been helpful on this," Lamie said. Family members "feel like they're being ignored by a cemetery, which is supposed to be taking care of them in their time of need."

Lucille Rembert's attorney is Tom Carey, who also represented the Babyland parents in a lawsuit against Royal Palm.

Carey said he has seen several cases like this over the years. In the least egregious cases, it's simply mismanagement. In the more serious ones, he said, it's the cemetery trying to resell plots that have become more valuable.

He said cemeteries are laid out on a grid. Plots are marked off with metal bronze rods. They don't move.

"And for them to come to this woman twice and say 'We goofed up,' I mean, how does this happen?" Carey said. "It shouldn't happen once, let alone twice."

• • •

One day recently, Lucille Rembert moved carefully between the grave markers at Royal Palm toward her husband's grave.

"This is him here," she said, stooping down to straighten a vase of silk flowers. His flat bronze plate reads: Bernard E. Rembert Sr., US Army Veteran, Dec. 30, 1944, Aug. 9, 1990.

To the left, less than a foot away, was the grave of the 95-year-old woman who died in 2006. Her family refused to move her.

The cemetery offered to wedge Rembert between them. But she couldn't see how she'd fit. Then she says Hock, the cemetery manager, told her she would have to move her husband and she might have to pay for it.

"To me, I'm reburying him over and over again," she said.

The couple met at Gibbs High School in 1963. They married in1967 and had four kids.

He went to Vietnam for 18 months as a paratrooper, but like many, returned a different man.

"He couldn't get it out of his head, that war," she said. "A lot of nights he couldn't sleep."

He worked in maintenance at General Electric and coached Little League football. But alcohol consumed him.

He shot himself in his easy chair in their home while she slept in the other room. He turned up the volume on the TV to drown out the shot.

He's been dead for 20 years.

She just wants him to rest in peace.

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at 727-893-8640.

Woman sues cemetery that filled plot next to her husband — for the second time 01/15/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:08pm]

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