Easter Smith stops by Lovedale Memorial Cemetery at least twice a month. She lays flowers on Mother’s Day; at Christmas she wraps and leaves small boxes to look like presents.
“This is my brother,” Smith says, pointing down at the marker. “My uncle is here. We’ve been fighting with them to put his headstone in that my mom paid for.”
They’ve been fighting to get the headstone for decades, Smith says. Her mother had the paperwork. But in 2012, her mother passed away too. Without the headstone, you can’t tell her uncle’s body was buried here.
“Over 6,500 bodies are buried somewhere out here,” Sherrod Pigee says. “The problem is a lot of people can’t even find their loved ones. We’re some of the fortunate ones who can,” he added.
Smith, Pigee and at least two dozen others gathered on Friday morning say the roads at Lovedale are typically flooded. A large wooden cross leans, crooked, in the distance. I count at least seven casket vaults, one of them open and full of water, discarded in the nearby woods.
They say the owner of Lovedale Memorial Cemetery, and nine other cemeteries in Southeast Michigan, is not taking care of the properties. They complain there are constantly weeds, flooding issues, potholes and missing grave markers.
“The pet cemetery in Flushing, Michigan looks and is kept better than this cemetery or any of the cemeteries that you own,” Jackie Poplar says.
Michael Butts owns or manages ten cemeteries in Southeast Michigan. Many of them have been turned over to a religious organization he’s linked to but are managed by his family business, Covenant Cemetery Services. State cemetery regulations don’t apply to those owned by municipalities or religious institutions.
That’s a loophole that these families would like to see changed. State Representative Sheldon Neely (D-Flint) and Rep. Tim Sneller (D-Burton) say they’re gathering stakeholder input and hope to introduce legislation soon.
Butts says he has been meeting with people who have concerns about the cemeteries he operates.
“We want to do the right thing and we will,” Butts says.
Butts says the heavy, consistent rains made this spring “the worst in history” for flooding at Lovedale. He says he has already started putting in new drainage ditches and hopes to wrap up work this fall. Next spring, he plans road improvements.
Butts says there is still money in Lovedale’s perpetual care fund, but didn’t know offhand how much.
As for the casket vaults in the woods, Butts says he can get a cheaper price if he buys a truckload at a time. He says they will move the vaults off the property in the next 15 days.
Matthew Smith says his grandmother’s grave at Crestwood Memorial in nearby Grand Blanc was sinking and covered in weeds. Butts operates Crestwood as well. Smith says he had to put in several complaints before it got fixed.
“I even had to send them pictures for proof because God forbid they go out of the office and walk 200 feet over and look themselves,” Smith says.
“I think it is going to take the people to come together and send a clear message that we’re fighting for our loved ones who’ve crossed over. And we’re going to do something about it in solidarity.”