tampabay.com

In death, his fear comes true

Frances Vincent's family knew he wanted to be laid to rest at a neighborhood Clearwater cemetery, and he feared bugs in death. Then they saw his casket.

By LEONORA LaPETER
Published March 4, 2007


BY LEONORA LAPETER Times Staff Writer

For several years, Frances Edward Vincent lived around the corner from Sylvan Abbey Memorial Park, a 95-acre cemetery in Clearwater with four ponds, 1,000 stately live oaks and budding dogwoods that shade thousands of graves. Vincent wanted to be laid to rest in all that serenity. But he feared bugs in death and expressed it so often it became a family joke. When Vincent died in 2005 from a heart attack, his family placed him in a temporary crypt in Sylvan Abbey's two-story mausoleum while construction on a new section was finished. They were told, Vincent's family said, that his crypt would be clean, dry and bug-free. Last June, the family gathered at the mausoleum to watch his casket be moved to its final resting place. Workers in surgical gloves slid the oak casket out with a winch. And that's when Kyle Vincent, 42, saw what his father feared most in death. "When they pulled it out, it was a cockroach field," he recalled, shuddering. "My father's remains had been eaten by cockroaches."

The Vincents are suing Sylvan Abbey in Pinellas Circuit Court. But the family is not the first to complain about the destruction of caskets at the mausoleum. Two other families had relatives placed in temporary crypts during the past 10 years only to have the caskets decay horribly in the span of months.

Sylvan Abbey's director of operations, Bob Simpson, declined recently to talk about the mausoleum or any of the other complaints, citing litigation.

The first case occurred a decade ago, when Ralph Natale, once a co-owner of Pickles Plus in Clearwater, returned six months after his 87-year-old mother's casket had been put in a temporary crypt. The casket would not come out because it was swollen. Three weeks later, they removed it.

"As they pulled the casket out, every 2 feet they had to take duct tape and wrap it around the casket so it wouldn't fall apart," he said. He settled with the casketmaker before filing a lawsuit.

In 1996, Kerry Morphy, 33, who had drowned, was placed in a temporary crypt at Sylvan Abbey's mausoleum. By this time, court records show, Sylvan Abbey officials had started checking the caskets before bringing out family members to view the transfer to the final crypt. Morphy's cherry casket also had disintegrated, so workers incinerated it and placed Morphy's body in a new casket - all without the family's permission. Many of Morphy's mementos, including jewelry and crystals that the family placed in a memory box, burned.

Morphy's mother sued Sylvan Abbey and settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. But the case produced reams of documents and testimony from former and current Sylvan Abbey employees, some of whom expressed concern that there was a problem with the mausoleum.

"I did bring it up at a staff meeting once that I'm wondering if that mausoleum was built so well that there's no air movement," a funeral director, Walter Deming, said in a deposition. "That Peacefield was built like the Rock of Gibraltar and it seems to be something is damaging the caskets, in my humble opinion."

Feeling of failure

Sylvan Abbey Memorial Park, started in 1853, claims to have Pinellas County's oldest recorded burial. In the back of the cemetery is Peacefield Mausoleum, which Sylvan Abbey says is "on its way to being one the of largest community mausoleums in the state of Florida." Hundreds of people are interred there.

Vincent's family liked the sprawling community mausoleum complete with elevator, stain-glass chapel and double atrium. The oak casket and a double-crypt big enough for him and his wife cost $17,000.

A Realtor, Vincent's fear of bugs came from having to move his own father's body, at one point, from one cemetery to another and seeing bugs in the casket.

"His whole life he said he didn't want to be put in the ground," Kyle Vincent recalled. "He'd say, 'I don't want the bugs to get me.' "

But cremation was out of the question. "He was Catholic and traditional," said Kyle Vincent. "He said he might need that body some day."

His father died in September 2005 at the age of 74. He'd been married 54 years, raised three children.

About nine months later in June 2006, Sylvan Abbey called the family and told them they were preparing to move Vincent from the temporary crypt. But days before the ceremony, Karen Quirke, Vincent's daughter, got a phone call from the man who sold them the crypt.

"He said, 'I don't know how to tell you this but I wouldn't show up if I were you,' " Quirke, 54, recalled. " 'We've had problems with the caskets breaking apart,' and 'it's not going to be a pretty sight and you don't want to remember your father that way.' "

Family members showed up anyway. But workers couldn't get the casket out of the crypt because it had swollen up so much. They came back a few days later and this time the casket slid out with all the cockroaches.

"Fathers and sons sometimes don't get along in spots and the same with me and my father," said Kyle Vincent. "There was headbutting and everything else. But the last thing I wanted to do was take care of what he wanted, and he wanted a nice burial, a nice wake. I feel as though I failed."

Similar problems

It is fraud for a funeral home or cemetery to promise that a mausoleum will be clean, dry or bug-free, said Josh Slocum, executive director for the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

He said he has received calls from people around the country who have had similar problems with mausoleums.

"What concerns me as a consumer advocate is the way some cemeteries mislead the public into believing that mausoleum burial is clean and dry without problems and that's not true," said Slocum. "Especially in a warm climate like Florida, you are going to have problems with mausoleums. There are going to be bugs."

These days, Vincent's wife, Doris, 74, keeps thinking about the crypt next to her husband, the one meant for her.

"I want to be with him but it's hard," she said. "I may think about taking him out of there and putting him somewhere else where we can be together."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.