Metro improperly resells hundreds of grave sites

Metro improperly resells hundreds of grave sites »Play Video
Lone Fir Cemetery

PORTLAND, Ore. – Metro improperly resold hundreds of grave sites in the 14 pioneer cemeteries the agency manages and on Friday they addressed the issue publicly.

KATU News Reporter Thom Jensen has been investigating the problem and was about to expose the fact that 640 grave sites already owned by families were resold to others when Metro decided to formally admit its error and release more details about what happened.

The largest cemetery Metro manages is the Lone Fir Cemetery in Southeast Portland. That’s were most of the grave sites were resold. According to Metro, the sites aren’t occupied but are bare plots of land for future burials.

Agency officials said the problem was first discovered in the fall of 2007 but did not go public with the extent of the problem until Friday. They said they immediately hired a company to conduct an independent audit to determine how widespread the problem might be. As a result of the audit, Metro instituted a number of new business practices and is working on correcting outdated plat maps.

Metro’s COO, Michael Jordan, said poor or no recordkeeping in the early days of these cemeteries led to the oversight.

“In fact, the majority of those 640 (were) prior to 1880,” he said. “And prior to that time recordkeeping wasn’t even required.”

Records kept in the early 20th Century were just notes jotted down in books by hand. Many of the sites were sold between $2 and $4.

Jordan said Metro is still trying to contact all owners who were affected to either give them their money back or find a new plot for them. He said it’s been difficult because of the old recordkeeping methods. In some cases there was no record of grave sites that were already sold and Jordan said Metro has suspended the sale of all plots at Lone Fir until the agency sorts everything out.

According to Metro, no occupied graves were accidentally dug up or mistakenly resold.

KATU first learned about the extent of the resold gravesites through a Metro whistleblower’s e-mail last month. In that e-mail the employee said someone had to investigate the problem because the agency was trying to hide the fact that it resold hundreds of grave sites.

“When you (KATU News reporter Thom Jensen) called to talk about it, we felt like we should let everybody know, so that’s what we did,” Jordan said.

He said after the mistake was discovered the agency began working with individual families.

Metro's Chief Operating Officer, Michael Jordan, released the following statement on Friday:

"Metro is working hard to respect the needs and privacy of the families who have purchased graves at the pioneer cemeteries Metro operates and to fulfill our contractual obligations to those families. After extensive research involving tens of thousands of poorly maintained or non-existent cemetery records Metro found that 640 unoccupied graves the vast majority of which were originally purchased before 1879 were incorrectly resold. 

"Public and private cemeteries across the nation, including Arlington National Cemetery, face similar challenges. From the moment we became aware of the problem we have taken aggressive action to implement solutions that honor our pioneer families and our more recent customers. This is a problem that was more than 150 years in the making. Metro has made significant progress is addressing it in just three years.

"We hired Moss Adams LLP to conduct an independent audit. We surveyed cemeteries. We completed an entirely new database of available and sold plots. We made management and staffing changes. And, we will continue to work with affected families to ensure their needs are met."

Metro also released the following answers to some of the questions people may have:

How many graves did Metro resell?
Answer: After extensive analysis Metro documented that 640 unoccupied plots in seven of the agency's 14 pioneer cemeteries were resold even though they were already owned by someone else. The vast majority of the resold graves were originally purchased before 1879. Despite significant efforts on Metro's part, we have been unable to locate descendants of the original purchasers.

Question: How did this happen?
Answer: When the cemeteries were transferred to Metro the burial and plot ownership records were in disarray. Approximately 55,000 interment records and 8,000 pre-death grave purchase records had been poorly maintained for more than 100 years.  To compound the problem, during the 1880s a brush fire occurred at Lone Fir that destroyed thousands of wooden grave markers. And, to complicate matters further, prior to 1880 records of burials were not required.

Question: When did Metro discover the "resold" issue?
Answer: Metro discovered that two graves had been resold improperly in the fall of 2007.  Metro immediately requested the Moss Adams LLP conduct an independent audit to determine how widespread the problem might be.  The audit recommendations, issued in the spring 0f 2008, called on Metro to institute a number of new business practices and perform a comprehensive audit of cemetery files.  That work has been completed.

Question: What else is Metro doing to address the challenge?
Answer: Metro staff surveyed Lone Fir – the oldest and largest cemetery in the program – and all of its other cemeteries to correct outdated plat maps and to account for trees and roads that currently occupy grave sites. Between 2008 and 2010 Metro reviewed more than 65,000 records and took steps to digitize the documents and create an electronic database to track future business operations.  Metro is continuing to improve the database by converting historic, hand-written records from interment accounting ledger books that are literally crumbling. Metro also completed an inventory of available graves (there are 4,300), pre-arrangement records, encroachments and interments to create a comprehensive database.  Metro also halted grave sales at Lone Fir. 

How long has Metro been responsible for pioneer cemeteries?
Answer: Ownership of 14 pioneer cemeteries was transferred to Metro from Multnomah County in 1994. The County operated the facilities without an adequate source of funds by state mandate through a period of mid-century legislative enactments until they were transferred to Metro.  The cemeteries began as private burial grounds for pioneer families in the early to mid-1800s.  The cemeteries shifted to private ownership and over time fell into disrepair or were abandoned until the state legislature mandated that counties take them over.

Question:  What happens to the graves families purchased years ago and that they are planning to use to bury a loved one?
Answer: Metro halted new grave sales at Lone Fir during the spring of 2009 to ensure everyone who has purchased a site can be accommodated.  Metro will make every effort to accommodate families' wishes in the graves they own or to resolve the issue in the most acceptable way possible.

Question: How can people find out if a grave they own has been resold?
Answer: Families should be reassured that, unless a family purchased the grave prior to 1920 and the grave is located in Lone Fir Cemetery, it is highly unlikely the grave has been resold.  Regardless, Metro is happy to work with anyone who has purchased a grave at a Metro cemetery.  Metro will need proof of family lineage to start the process.  People should contact Metro at (503) 813-7592 or if they have questions.

Question: Has Metro notified people who purchased previously sold graves?
Answer: Out of respect for everyone, and because of the complexity of the records involved, Metro is working with families on a case-by-case basis.  As issues arise, Metro is working to address them in ways that meet families' needs.  Metro is continuing its work to identify descendants of the original purchasers.

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