News | Regulation & Enforcement

For Immediate Release: August 14, 2009

State must regulate pre-need providers

Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann shouldn't be in the private cemetery business. But that is exactly what has happened because of some unscrupulous operators who have cost hundreds of Mississippians who got scammed with "pre-need" burial services.

Prentiss County Chancery Judge John Hatcher this week appointed Hosemann's office as overseer for four private cemeteries around the state, including Sunset Gardens Memorial in Laurel.

Almost $380,000 worth of contracts were sold at those cemeteries and at least half of that money is unaccounted for.

Pre-need funeral arrangements are designed to let a person pay for his or a relative's funeral services in advance at current rates. Because funeral costs continue to rise, it can be a good deal.

Most funeral homes and businesses that offer these policies are reputable outfits that provide a good, honest service.

But that's not always the case. There are some shady people out there trying to take advantage of others.

And that, apparently, is what has happened with these cemeteries that were owned and operated by Don Middleton and Rogers Memorial Management Co., officials say.

An arrest warrant has been issued for Middleton, but he hasn't been located. Meanwhile, people who bought the pre-need policies are left holding the bag.

"Don Middleton has left these four cemeteries in such a state of disarray, the judge had no other option but to appoint our office as overseer of these properties," Hosemann said.

This isn't the first time this has happened in Mississippi. The state seized a Vicksburg cemetery earlier this year after an investigation determined only $221.60 remained in a trust fund to pay for maintenance of the cemetery.

The investigation determined that about $600,000 was missing from the trust account.

Some of the contracts were almost 30 years old.

Many of the victims of these scams are elderly and relied on these policies to take care of their funeral expenses so their survivors wouldn't face a financial burden.

Unfortunately, in our society it is the elderly who are most vulnerable to these scams. They may not be able to read or understand a contract. Many of our elderly citizens are too trusting of others and can't tell when they are being taken.

Obviously, more state or federal regulation of the pre-need burial insurance industry is needed. Mississippi has taken some steps to protect residents, but these incidents prove that more should be done.