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Editorial: Complaints about Pinellas cemetery have disturbing pattern

Grief-stricken families place their trust in funeral and cemetery directors when a loved one dies. They trust that their deceased family member will be treated respectfully during the preparation for burial, and they rely on cemetery directors to take care of their loved one's final resting place in perpetuity. But the owner of a Dunedin cemetery may have violated that trust, and if he did, he would be the second owner so accused at that cemetery in recent years. The state should thoroughly investigate a raft of complaints by customers and a former employee, and if the allegations are upheld, remove the owner and assume management of the cemetery until a trustworthy party can be found to run it.

Charles Scalisi bought the 13-acre cemetery at 2966 Belcher Road in Dunedin in 2002 — after the state had taken control of it from the previous owner, who was accused of stealing jewelry and other items from bodies and leaving the cremated remains of 100 people in an open garbage can.

Scalisi changed the name of the cemetery from Abbey Parklawn to Eternal Rest Memories Park and Funeral Home. He promised upgrades and professional operation.

The state probably expected Scalisi to perform well. He had worked in the funeral industry in south Florida and Clearwater for years with no documented record of problems. He started off well, running Eternal Rest with his wife, Tracey.

But then complaints began trickling into the state Board of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services. Families complained that they were overcharged, that their deposits were not returned, that death certificates weren't filed on time and calls weren't returned. In the past year alone, three lawsuits have been filed against Scalisi. A state panel found there was probable cause that Scalisi violated state law regarding fraud and negligence in funeral operations.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Weston Phippen reported this month that a couple visiting the cemetery last year couldn't find the grave of their infant son who died in 1999. They discovered that the area where their son had been buried — a part of the cemetery known as Babyland — was itself buried in a thick layer of dirt. The grounds keeper eventually found the grave by poking the dirt with a metal probe. He said later that crews had been driving over graves without realizing they were there.

The same grounds keeper, who was later fired, also claimed that Scalisi made him quickly smash the pine boxes that people who chose "green burials" were buried in. He said Scalisi wanted to save the trouble of having to return later, after the boxes decayed, to add dirt to the graves.

Two brothers have filed complaints with the state, saying that Eternal Rest buried their mother and another woman stacked atop each other in the same grave without telling them.

Scalisi has denied the allegations against him or blamed them on miscommunication. However, public records show upheaval in his personal life in the last three years, with arrests listed for drunken driving and cocaine possession.

Clearly, something is amiss at Eternal Rest, with the claims about disruption of graves especially disturbing. The state has investigated and taken control at the Dunedin cemetery once before. Families whose loved ones are buried there will be counting on the state to do so again — and to find a stable operator in the future — if the claims are confirmed.

Editorial: Complaints about Pinellas cemetery have disturbing pattern 07/17/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 17, 2014 4:20pm]
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