MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, MICH. - It's not easy planning your own funeral, but that's exactly what a Muskegon Heights woman did decades ago by purchasing gravesites for her family. She never imagined that 52 years later, there would be a mix-up.
"It’s important that I'm next to my mother. That's not going to change. I don't mean any harm to anybody. I would just like them to set it right", says Billie Bruce, whose mother died in 1967. "I paid for the graves in 1967. I was shocked to find out this happened, said Bruce.
At the time, Bruce was married, so she purchased plots 5, 6, 13 and 14 at Mona View Cemetery in Muskegon Heights. The map shows two plots are next to each other. The other two, are below.
"One for me, one for my husband -- we’ve been married 52 years, we ought to be together," Bruce explained. "This other family has nothing to do with it."
It was in May of 2015, that Billie noticed the problem.
A woman named Carolyn Hunt had recently been buried in her spot. Bruce immediately went to the cemetery office, where she was told the woman was in the right spot. She took her fight to city hall, where she says she still didn't get answers. "This is outrageous and I'm tired of fighting. I'm 74 years old and fighting leukemia.”
In March of 2016, attorney Gary Britton took Bruce's case. He asked the city of Muskegon Heights, to move the body. "Emotionally, it's been very hard on her family and it just didn't need to be," says Britton.
The city agreed to help -- they contacted the family of Carolyn Hunt, whose daughter-in-law, An Nette Hunt, agreed to the move. She was told the reason was to put Carolyn next to her father. "Since they were moving her closer to her dad, I felt good about it. I didn't know it was a mix-up, they didn't tell me anything about that", says Hunt.
In August of 2016, legal documents were signed by both sides. A few days later, Bruce's attorney requested a permit. It was granted and in September of 2016, it was sent to Toombs funeral home.
Nearly a year later, nothing had been done. So, Britton started preparing a lawsuit to file in circuit court. "It's a real estate transaction really, but to a person, it's much, much more."
Around the same time, Bruce also contacted WZZM 13 On Your Side. One week after our first interview with Bruce, the body of Carolyn Hunt was moved.
"It was huge. First, I got myself together and called my children because I didn’t want them to worry anymore."
We asked Muskegon Heights City Manager, Jake Eckholm, what went wrong. He's only been on the job for eight months, but says as soon as he heard about the problem, he made sure it was taken care of. "Oh, it certainly took too long. Our goal is to provide a high level of public service and this isn't the ideal situation for us."
Eckholm doesn't believe there was a mix-up with the plots. Instead, he says the old cemetery map doesn't consider the large tree between the plots. Bruce's space was not directly behind her mother. He did acknowledge that the proper permits were obtained by Bruce's attorney.
The paperwork shows it was sent to the funeral home. "But it did not get to our cemetery office”, says Eckholm.
The funeral home, however, says they hand delivered the permit nearly a year ago. "No one would admit they were wrong”, says Bruce. At this point, she doesn't know who to believe. She says it shouldn’t have taken this long, but is glad it's done. "I felt relieved. This has been a nightmare.”
When it comes to pre-planning for funeral costs, the Federal Trade Commission says it is in your best interest to buy cemetery plots before you need them. If you do, make sure you get everything in writing and always make a personal visit to the site.
For more consumer tips, go to consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0305-planning-your-own-funeral
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