JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - If you've ever had to plan a funeral, you know it can be very emotional and tough to handle.
That's why many pre-plan their funerals and pick out their final resting spots.
One First Coast family says they planned ahead and purchased burial plots for their family, only to find out years later that someone else was buried in the spot. What's more, despite their valid contract with the cemetery, the exchange was legal.
Sarah Hunt's parents purchased four plots at the Restlawn Cemetery in 1953 for $240. Two belonged to Hunt's parents, the remaining two would be for other family members. Hunt's World War I veteran father, Augustus Bell, passed in 1960 at the age of 74. His wife, Effie Bell,l ived for 48 more years and died just shy of her 99th birthday in 2008.
During a regular visit to pay respects, Hunt noticed something strange.
"My sister and I came out to put flowers on my parents' graves and we noticed the earth had been disturbed," says Hunt about one of her family's open plots. "A groundskeeper used a probe to go into the ground, and they told us someone had been buried there. We have no idea who it is."
The recent burial has no headstone, but the cemetery told Hunt her family's plot had been reclaimed by the cemetery.
Florida statute 497.286 allows a cemetery to treat a plot as abandoned if the owner of an unused burial plot has not given the cemetery a current forwarding address for a period of 50 consecutive years.
Hunt believed the address used for her mother's burial in 2008 would have updated all four plots. However, in 2015, a certified letter about the unused plot was sent to an old address and never reached her.
Owner of Restlawn, Mark Ripasta, said mistakes were made in recordkeeping before he became the owner in 2013.
He says he has made efforts to rectify many problems at his own expense. He recommends all plot owners keep in contact with the cemetery and update their contact information when they move.
He is offering to disinter and relocate Hunt's parents to another place in the cemetery where more plots are available. Hunt said it's a difficult decision to make, especially since her mother's sister is also buried nearby.
"My mother always said, don't move us [your father and I], don't move us," says Hunt. "Because you're Aunt Van is buried across from us and we don't want her left here alone."
Hunt says she doesn't wish to be buried in Restlawn if she won't be by her parents. She believes the 50-year rule should be changed.
"We had no idea you had to [update the contact information.] You buy something and you think that it's yours into perpetuity and it's not, obviously," Hunt says. "Who knows how many other graves have been repossessed and taken over?"
The Florida State Division of Funeral, Cemetery, and Consumer Services recommends contacting their helpline with any questions or complaints regarding cemetery plots at (850) 413-3039 or (Statewide toll-free) 1-800-323-2627.
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