Scandals Turning Cemeteries Into Land-Use Issue in L.A. : Burials: Owners’ profits dry up as sites fill up. Two memorial parks are being investigated for reselling plots.


In ancient Egypt, thieves plundered golden treasure from the tombs of kings. In 1990s Los Angeles, the burial gold lies in the real estate, in the grave sites themselves.

There will always be more dead people, but there will not always be more land to put them in. Which makes owning a cemetery, industry analysts say, a limited-term investment, much like brokering a tract of homes; it is the business of selling real estate a small swatch at a time until the land is gone, owned finally by families of the dead.

This summer, though, grim evidence is emerging that the owners of two old, sold-out cemeteries in Southern California preferred to see their businesses as immortal producers of income.


At 67-year-old Paradise Memorial Park, state investigators allege, the owners dug up remains from graves so they could resell the plots, heaping human bones in an unceremonious pile behind a toolshed.

“I’ve taken five or six families to the same grave” at the Santa Fe Springs cemetery, said Mike Mintz, a private cemetery consultant who has taken over the grounds on behalf of the state. “Five, six, seven people buried in the same grave--on the same day.”

At Lincoln Memorial Park in Carson, which also dates back to the 1920s, relatives have spent the past three weeks trying to locate the remains of loved ones after their headstones were found in garbage bins and as roadside curbs, and coffins were found buried three inches below the surface.

In Europe and Mexico, it has long been common practice to disinter older remains to make way for the newly dead.

“Alas, poor Yorick,” says Shakespeare’s Hamlet as he holds aloft the skull of an old friend, whose bones were dug up to make way for the recently departed Ophelia.

But in relatively young Los Angeles, fully occupied cemeteries are a land-use issue whose time arrived only this summer, in two of the county’s oldest operating cemeteries.


Few Americans in a land of seemingly endless land think about what happens to cemeteries once they are full. How do the owners make money if they have nothing more to sell? How do the cemeteries stay open and how can they be maintained for visitors if there is no income?

According to state law, they no longer should be making money; like a real estate developer with a sold-out tract, their business is over. And for more than 50 years, California law has required cemeteries to set aside money for an endowment fund that pays to operate and maintain them once the revenue stops.

State investigators say the two troubled cemeteries are only the first indications that the law has not worked that way. Southern Californians will have plenty of opportunity in coming months to think about the fate of old cemeteries, said Ray Giunta, executive director of the state Cemetery Board, as several other burial grounds in the Los Angeles area come under investigation.

“As soon as we’re finished [at Lincoln], we’ll move on,” Giunta said. “We’ve already been to other places and found problems.”


While industry spokesmen bemoan the alleged misdeeds at the two cemeteries, insisting that they are aberrations born of greed, they concede that making a profit from scarcer and ever more expensive urban land is becoming a major topic in the burial business.

Finding a solution will be “ the challenge for cemeteries” in coming years, said Samuel E. Messina, chairman of the New York State Cemetery Board.


What some have in mind is to change the United States over to the European model of reburial, a goal that they admit has inherent obstacles. Most Americans, with their longstanding love of private property and distaste for morbid subjects, reject the notion of grave sites as rentals.

Jon Donnellan, Washington state’s top funeral and cemetery official, said one way to make European-style temporary interment more palatable here might be to add an American twist: Allow families to purchase rather than lease burial plots, but with the intention that they be recycled, occupied eventually by each new generation.

“Require that caskets are made of wood so they decompose faster,” he said. “The next generation can then bury their loved ones in the same family plot.”

Cemetery Board chief Giunta agrees that the common practice of single-resident grave sites will have to change, “or you’ll have to drive 200 miles to visit your loved ones.”

Cremation might be an easier sell, especially in the West, industry analysts say.

Nationwide, 21% of those who die are cremated. But in California, that figure stands at 42%, and cremation experts predict that it will rise to more than 50% by the year 2010.

Where a typical grave is 3 1/2 feet by 8 or 9 feet, an average urn of cremated remains is about the size of a shoe box. Already, many cemeteries allow small urns to be buried in the same family plot, even if the plot is occupied by a casket.


Industry spokesmen across the country said they occasionally see a case of a cemetery owner embezzling money from the endowment funds that are meant to maintain sold-out cemeteries. But none could recall a case of bodies being removed and the plots resold.

At Paradise, which probably had sold all its grave sites nearly a decade ago, the state seized control April 16, saying the owners had found a variety of illegal ways to continue interring the dead, thereby continuing to make money.

Workers would dig up a long-buried body and replace it with a new one, investigators contend. Or, in a grave sold as a single, they would stack bodies one on top of the other, sometimes as many as 10 or 15.

Often, officials say, Paradise would “stage” funerals, conducting ceremonies in a nicer part of the park, but not actually lowering the casket into the ground. Once the services were over and friends and family had left, workers would bury the remains in one of the illegal graves.

Paradise Memorial Park is owned by Alma Fraction, 68, and her two children, Victor Fortner, 48, and Felicia Fraction, 30, all of Los Angeles. Alma and Felicia Fraction have told authorities that Fortner was in charge of the day-to-day operation of the facility. Fortner could not be reached for comment, but has reportedly told investigators that he did not realize he was doing anything illegal.

Investigators said the three may face more than 140 charges by the time the case is filed, possibly by Oct. 1.


Although evidence of improprieties at Lincoln Memorial Park in Carson has continued to emerge since the state seized control of the facility Aug. 18, state investigators said, the alleged violations appear less gruesome. But, they added, indications abound of a cemetery that had sold all its plotted grave sites but continued to hold burials.

Burial plots are scattered helter-skelter on the Lincoln grounds, instead of in the traditional even rows with headstones facing the same direction. Some are placed between rows, facing 90 degrees in a different direction. Other headstones are simply jammed against a road or in odd corners of the 20-acre park.

About 30% of the several thousand complaints investigated thus far, Giunta said, have pointed to improprieties: missing headstones, headstones found yards from where they should be, plots or portions of plots that appear to have been resold.

According to state officials, both cemeteries were sold out and should have remained open only to allow visitors. Instead, both continued to hold burials, investigators say, and the owners of each raided the endowments--to the tune of about $40,000 at Paradise and $438,000 at Lincoln, which is owned by the Hollywood Cemetery Assn. Principals of the company, which also owns Hollywood Cemetery, have repeatedly refused to comment.


In the case of Lincoln, which probably sold out only recently, owners may have resorted to reselling plots to pay for upkeep after they had embezzled much of the maintenance trust fund, Giunta alleged. And if there is no money left to keep the grounds open, relatives of those buried at the two cemeteries insist that the state--and its taxpayers--must pick up the perpetual operating tab.

There is no law against multiple graves. Indeed, at cemeteries such as Paradise and Lincoln, where the majority of customers are poor, the cheaper “multiples” are common. And many couples purchase a double grave with the intent of staying together even in death.


But reselling grave sites is a felony in California. The multiple-burial plots must be sold as such, with all parties aware that is what they’re buying into.

Shakespeare himself thought it a crime deserving more than earthly punishment. His epitaph reads: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear / To dig the dust enclosed here; / Blest be the man that spares these stones, / And curst be he that moves my bones.”