(CBS News) Problems at America's cemeteries, including exhuming bodies so plots can be resold, are raising questions about whether this part of the multibillion dollar "death-care" business needs more monitoring. 60 Minutes examines this largely unexamined industry, which in many cases is controlled by large corporations, and which consumer advocates believe may be taking advantage of people at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives. Anderson Cooper reports this story for a special edition of 60 Minutes Sunday, May 20 at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT.
In one of the most egregious cases, workers at Burr Oak Cemetery near Chicago had been removing headstones and coffins and dumping bodies in mass graves so plots could be resold. Says Sheriff Tom Dart, "This was all about greed and overarching that is the fact that these areas are so horribly unregulated, it allows for that to happen," he says. "There was no record of anything...how many people are supposed to be buried here...and truly, in any cemetery do you know...who is under there?" asks Dart.
"It's sort of the Wild West," says Josh Slocum, executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance, a non-profit watchdog group. Slocum believes more monitoring of cemeteries is necessary. He says that since 1984 the Federal Trade commission has required funeral homes to provide bereaved consumers with clear price lists and other disclosures. "You can think of that as a consumer bill of rights at the funeral home," Slocum says. "But those rights stop at the cemeteries."
A number of the cemeteries featured in Cooper's report belong to Service Corporation International, or SCI, the largest provider of funeral and cemetery services in North America.
At SCI's Eden Memorial Park Cemetery near Los Angeles, where plots average $8,000, groundskeepers have said they were ordered to cram new graves so close to old ones that existing burial containers were broken and bones were thrown out in the cemetery dump.
60 Minutes also obtained recent video of engraved stones lying submerged in a pond at the edge of SCI's Star of David Memorial Park in North Lauderdale, Florida. The underwater video also reveals what appear to be parts of concrete burial containers that are used to line graves.
SCI declined to give 60 Minutes an interview. Off-camera, company executives said the company acquired Star of David cemetery in 2006 and does not believe any human remains were dumped in the pond. At Eden Memorial, the company says it was only able to identify a handful of potential problems mentioned by its groundskeepers. It says extensive claims of wrongdoing are not justified.
Cooper also speaks to a woman who says she had to pay twice as much as the cemetery salesman led her to believe she would have to pay for a plot at Mt. Olive cemetery in Chicago. To use the plot six years after she prepaid $2,500 for it, she says she was told she would have to pay another $2,550 to actually dig the grave and then bury the deceased.
Paul Elvig, a former cemetery operator, regulator, and leading spokesman for the industry, tells Anderson Cooper, "I think any scenario you want to say probably has happened. I don't think it happens on broad scale, I really don't." Elvig doesn't agree with Slocum that there is lack of oversight in the cemetery industry; he says the problems and occasional scandals that arise need to be put in perspective to volume of burials being performed every day. "When you talk about 6,500 burials and cremations a day in over 45,000 possibly active cemeteries...it is very uncommon."
But consumer advocate Josh Slocum tells Cooper. "I have no problem conceding that most cemeteries aren't digging up bodies, but...there are everyday, ongoing abuses that happen to funeral and cemetery consumers that are not headline-grabbing, and that desperately need attention."