Secretary of State Michael Watson is set to hold a meeting in Petal to get feedback from officials and residents on the Forrest Memorial Gardens Cemetery on Carterville Road, in particular on maintenance and ownership of the site.
The meeting is set for 6 p.m. Sept. 22 at Petal Civic Center on South Main Street, and residents who have questions about the cemetery are encouraged to attend. Mayor Tony Ducker said issues have been raised about overgrown grass at Forrest Memorial, and other legal matters may have been raised with the recent death of the owner.
“We want to see what some of our options are going forward,” Mayor Tony Ducker said. “I think the simple part would be making sure, in the short run, that (the grass) gets cut and taken care of.
“It’s a little bit harder trying to sort out the legalities of it, so it’ll be nice to have the Secretary of State’s office come in and kind of see what our options are.”
For the last several years, the cemetery has been registered to Preston O. Lewis of Petal, who recently passed away.
“So that kind of complicates it a little further,” Ducker said. “His wife, I don’t think she lives in Petal, but she’s in the area.
“I’ve got quite a few questions along those lines (regarding ownership), but I think from a legal matter, they still own it – the entity they had it under still owns it. But hopefully, the Secretary of State can sort some of this stuff out.”
In September 2016, Delbert Hosemann, who then served as Secretary of State, said the cemetery was in danger of being seized by the state and sold to the highest bidder Lewis falied to make arrangements to pay at least $22,477 – and possibly up to $32,000 – that Hosemann’s office said was owed to the cemetery’s perpetual care fund. That was after a 2012 audit discovered that officials from the cemetery had not remitted the proper amount required by state law to that fund.
A consent agreement was then drawn up between the cemetery and the Secretary of State’s Regulation and Enforcement Division, in which cemetery officials agreed to deposit 15 percent of the sales price of ground interments to the perpetual trust funds.
Hosemann said those payments were made for a few years, until Lewis ceased paying into the fund.
“Mr. Lewis made payments of about $7,500 over the years – he was to pay about $374.42 per month,” Hosemann said. “That money would go into a perpetual care trust for keeping the cemetery up to the standards that we expect – cutting the grass, fixing the roads and the other things that you expect for a cemetery to be well-run.
“He indeed (made those payments) before he quit, citing that he didn’t have the money or health problems or whatever.”
After discovering that Lewis had ceased making payments, Hosemann conducted another audit that showed Lewis had also been selling pre-need funeral goods – such as caskets, burial containers, memorial markers or grave opening and closing fees – without putting those funds into the perpetual care trust.
Officials from Watson’s office did not return a call for comment by press time, but Ducker said to the best of his knowledge, those payments had not been made.
“To my understanding, the problems that plagued it have continued,” he said. “But at first look, you want to, at the very least, get the grass cut and make sure it doesn’t fall into a state of disrepair.”
Perpetual care cemeteries are regulated by the Regulation and Enforcement Division of the Secretary of State’s office.
Exempt cemeteries include cemeteries that are affiliated with or owned by churches or religious societies, established fraternal societies, municipalities, or other political subdivisions of the State of Mississippi. Also exempt are family cemeteries, family burial grounds, and community cemeteries.