When a loved one dies, those left behind to take care of funeral and burial arrangements are vulnerable. They rely on trusted undertakers and burial services to see them through those difficult times.
But dozens of people say one South Dakota cemetery has broken that trust, leaving their dearly departed without their last wishes or respect.
Teri Beirstedt sheds tears at the grave of her baby boy Tanner at Restlawn in Huron. Tanner died in 1995, at just nine months, of a heart defect.
“We chose here because my mom and dad have family plots out here. And at that time, it was a beautiful place,” Beirstedt said.
But Teri says over the years, that’s changed.
“There’s no upkeep. My son’s grave marker is all scratched up,” Beirstedt said.
On the day KELOLAND News paid a visit to Restlawn, we found dried up holiday wreathes, unmarked graves never covered with grass, damage to the mausoleum and just a general state of disarray. It feels like a personal violation to Beirstedt.
“My trust, my trust out here, that it would be taken care of and kept beautiful out here, just like why we picked out here,” Beirstedt said.
Teri and her husband Roger pre-purchased their own plots for $880 so someday they could be buried next to their son. After Roger lost his battle with cancer in December and was cremated, Teri wanted to honor his wishes; but she can’t get Restlawn to return her calls.
“I can’t get an answer. Nobody answers the phone,” Beirstedt said.
Nobody answered KELOLAND News’ calls to the cemetery either and when we paid a visit to the office, no one was around.
KELOLAND News checked the shop and no one was their either.
“In the meantime, I have these two plots I paid for; I don’t know. That’s part of my grief is that I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Beirstedt said.
Moving Tanner to a different location, so father and son can be together, would be an expensive option.
“Too bad heaven doesn’t have an 800-number, I could call them up and say, ‘What would Roger do?’ you know?” Beirstedt said.
“So you want someone to get to the bottom of it,” Jeanie Greenwood said.
Several people with loved ones buried at Restlawn contacted KELOLAND Investigates looking for answers.
“My dad is here, my stepdad is here, and my grandparents are here. I’ve got friends, cousins, you look at this beautiful cemetery it used to be and now it’s not being cared for,” Greenwood said.
Greenwood’s immediate concern is the grave of her cousin Jill Wurzer, who died at just 49 years old.
I brought my aunt out here yesterday and I said, ‘Where’s Jill’s?’ And she said, ‘Right here.’ No marker, no nothing and she died March 29th of last year. They told her the marker would be in place by April such and such,” Greenwood said.
This contract with Restlawn Memory Gardens shows the family paid more than $2500 for Jill’s gravestone. According to the contract: “Seventy percent of any funds received under this contract are required by law to be placed in a funeral trust fund in a depository described by law.”
Greenwood can’t understand if the money is set aside, why Jill’s marker is still missing. She is also concerned about the money her father paid for the upkeep of his grave and eventually her mother’s.
‘What happened to the money? That’s what I would like to know; what happened to the money?” Greenwood said.
“Obviously there were services expected, services paid for that were not received,” South Dakota’s Attorney General Marty Jackley said.
South Dakota’s Attorney General’s office is investigating after getting 47 complaints about problems at Restlawn, most of them over money paid for gravestones that haven’t shown up.
“First priority is to get those headstones placed for loved ones. Second priority is looking into the criminal activity that may be a theft situation or a trust violation. There are certain obligations somebody has in a trust responsibility,” Jackley said.
According to South Dakota law, “Payments for perpetual care shall be permanently set aside in a trust fund, and only the income from the trust fund investments shall be used for the care and maintenance of the cemetery.”
“You just want to know, what is the cemetery’s responsibility? And I really want to get to the bottom of what is happening to the money that went into this trust; because if you look around and see the number of plots that are sold, there should be a lot of money to take care of this cemetery. And they continued to sell plots,” Greenwood said.
Our attempts to repeatedly contact Restlawn owner, John Bethel of the Des Moines area, were unsuccessful.
A search of Iowa’s records found that Bethel was also the registered agent of several inactive cemetery and memorial businesses in that state.
According to the Beadle County Register of Deeds, Bethel, doing business as Restlawn, has $167,000 in federal tax liens against it from 2014 that remain unpaid today.
“You look at all the spots out there; there should be money to take care of the cemetery. And if there is no money there; what has the owner done with the money?” Greenwood said.
Perpetual Care cemeteries, like Restlawn, with more than 100 graves are supposed to file an annual financial report with the South Dakota Secretary of State’s Office. Restlawn has not done that. The Secretary of State tells KELOLAND Investigates that fewer than 10 cemeteries file the required report because they are self-reported and there is no penalty not to do so.
“I think after this incident, I would encourage the South Dakota legislature to look into our laws; because obviously you have 47 families that are in a difficult situation. They’ve lost a loved one and are expecting a service and that last thing they needed was this. So we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can as a state to protect against it,” Jackley said.
“In my belief is my dad isn’t here, my dad is in heaven. But still his remains are here. And I feel it is my responsibility to make sure what he bought or what he thought he paid for, he’s getting his money’s worth, Greenwood said.
South Dakota’s Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Protection believes there may be more than 47 families who have grievances with Restlawn Memory Gardens.
If you have a complaint, you can file it here:
This is the website put together by families who are concerned about the state of the cemetery: