PLAINS TWP. — Never imagining the tragedy to come, Denise Kumor’s parents bought side-by-side mausoleum crypts at the Good Shepherd Memorial Park on Westminster Road because the cemetery was beautiful and they didn’t want her to worry about fussing over graves.
“They never wanted me to have any burden,” said Kumor, who lost her father, Carl DeNunzio, in 1991 and mother, Alice, six years later.
Instead, their final resting place has turned into an all-consuming source of stress for Kumor.
Condemned in 2015, the mausoleum is structurally unsound and plagued with leaks. Abandoned by prior owners, the 6.08-acre cemetery is now officially orphaned with no governmental entities willing to take on the liability and responsibility for its upkeep.
Kumor said she doesn’t have thousands of dollars required to remove her parents, which would not include the cost of purchasing new burial spots with vaults and a headstone.
Setting aside safety concerns, she can’t bear to visit them anymore.
“I don’t go there because I get sick to my stomach and cry all day,” Kumor said. “It’s horrible — horrible.”
Area residents familiar with the situation say the cemetery’s significant decline started when Larry Deminski took charge.
Deminski, who identified himself as a pastor of Unity Light of Christ Church in Pittston Township, said the cemetery had been donated to the church, according to county paperwork associated with his unsuccessful 2001 assessment appeal.
However, ownership of the cemetery was never officially recorded under Deminski or the church, property records show. Laflin-based Westminster Memorial Garden Inc. took possession of the property in 1983 from Westminster Associates, also based in Laflin. Both Westminster entities are defunct, according to published reports.
Deminski told a Times Leader reporter in 2003, a year before his death, that money set aside in a perpetual care fund for the crypt and plot maintenance was gone, claiming someone forged his signature on a bank deposit slip to obtain the money. He cited his health problems as part of the reason for debris, overgrowth and a leaky mausoleum roof.
Lawrence Lee and Viktoriia Evstafieva bought the 6.08-acre cemetery for $4,500 from a county back-tax auction in 2005 and lost their legal battle to nullify the purchase and obtain a refund.
In 2012, or seven years after buying the property, Lee and Evstafieva went to court arguing the cemetery should have been tax-exempt as a burial ground and never listed for auction. The county successfully maintained the statute of limitations to challenge a sale had run out and that the property was rightfully listed for sale because the former owner never obtained tax-exempt status. Such status is not automatic.
Attempts to reach Lee and Evstafieva through online phone listings and a law office that once represented them were unsuccessful.
The property is still in their name and has racked up $27,969 in unpaid real estate taxes dating to 2010, records show.
Not on sale list
Normally, a property is listed for auction again if delinquent taxes date back more than two years, but county officials are making a rare exception of doing nothing.
• It’s highly likely any sale would result in a similar situation, where the buyer is not willing or able to assume financial responsibility for the cemetery’s many needs, possibly leading to additional costly litigation.
• If nobody buys the cemetery — which is the expected outcome — it would get stuck in the repository, a pool of more than 950 properties that nobody wanted.
The county is semi-liable for repository properties, serving as legal trustee while the owners of record have abandoned them and stopped paying real estate taxes, officials have said.
Since taking over county tax claim oversight in 2010, Northeast Revenue Service LLC has advised against listing properties that could become a repository liability for the county. The repository already had inherited several unwanted catch basins, roads and scraps of land left by developers who stopped paying taxes after they sold their desirable inventory and wrapped up construction projects, Northeast Revenue representatives said.
County Manager C. David Pedri said he agrees with Northeast Revenue’s recommendation.
“The county is not going to willfully take on more liability,” Pedri said. “We’re not going to be a catch-all for someone else’s errors.”
In their legal action, Lee and Evstafieva pointed to an old state law that says county courts may place neglected burial grounds that have become a nuisance under the care of the municipality.
Township officials have said they don’t have the financial resources to take on such a project, which could eventually include tearing down the mausoleum and relocating those buried inside. The relatives of those who already removed their loved ones also might expect reimbursement if the township covered that expense for others, officials have said.
“It shouldn’t be the responsibility of Plains taxpayers,” said township Solicitor Stephen Menn.
For now, the municipality will allow funeral homes to enter the condemned mausoleum to remove remains if the relatives obtain court orders and the funeral homes sign liability waivers in case they are injured.
Continuing the work of his late funeral director father, Chris Yanaitis has made it his mission to get past clients out of the mausoleum.
Yanaitis, of the Yanaitis Funeral Home Inc. in the township, said his father, Mark, aggressively sought help for those buried at Good Shepherd, but he got nowhere before his death in 2014 due to a lack of laws protecting consumers.
“It was one of my father’s last wishes to help as many families as we could get (relatives) out of that building,” said Yanaitis.
The son volunteered countless hours working with local attorney Jeffrey Kulick and others to develop a court procedure and liability waiver required for such removals. He shares the information with other funeral directors to assist their own clients.
“Nobody knew how to do this, and we were the first,” said Yanaitis.
Kulick said court approval is necessary because the state permits required to remove remains mandated the cemetery owner’s signature. The owners were willing to provide access to the cemetery verbally, but not in writing, he said.
By foregoing any profit for his funeral home business, Yanaitis has kept the cost around $3,000 for each court action, removal and cremation involving a past funeral home client, he said.
The work is risky.
Yanaitis and his workers don respirator masks inside the mausoleum due to leakage through crypts, black mold and moss on the carpet.
Some caskets are pristine, but those nearest to roof damage are rusted and contain holes, he said.
He has removed 15 deceased to date and said he’s willing to risk his personal safety.
“That’s something I would do any day for a loved one,” Yanaitis said. “These people should be at peace.”
He estimates 60 to 65 are still entombed in the mausoleum, but the loss of lettering on some vaults and a lack of maps and records from previous owners makes verification impossible.
Yanaitis does not know if the mausoleum can be saved at this point and worries the structure will sustain further damage this winter. He and his family have shoveled up exterior debris. He questions what will happen if it collapses.
“You go up there and see that building, and your heart breaks,” he said. “It should be a place of peace and it’s not. There’s just a bad feeling around that place.”
Al Panatieri said he was the first to remove a loved one — his father — in 2016 working with Yanaitis and Kulick. The pressure was on because his elderly mother was not in good health at the time.
“We had to get things settled somewhere else so they could be together as they wished,” said Panatieri, who has piles of paperwork documenting his failed efforts to convince government officials to do something about the cemetery problems, including the release and spending of the perpetual fund for non-cemetery expenses.
His family had purchased four crypts at Good Shepherd for about $7,000 and had to pay for relocation permission and new sites in another cemetery for thousands more that “nobody is reimbursing,” he said.
Many of the deceased remaining in the mausoleum have no survivors, he said.
“I feel sorry for them. There’s nothing you can do. Nobody is out there to help us,” Panatieri said.
Echoing his sentiments, Kumor believes government officials would take action if their own family members were the victims.
“When is somebody going to step up and help us?”
Florence and Edmund Giza’s plans to be buried next to each other have been shattered by the cemetery’s problems.
Edmund, an Army veteran who served during World War II, was buried at the cemetery in 1996. The funeral home could not obtain clearance to place Florence at his side when she died in 2016, said her daughter, Monica Carbone, of Wilkes-Barre.
“It’s really upsetting that they’re not together,” Carbone said.
She recalls Edmund, her stepfather, speaking proudly of his war service advancing into Germany, and he received four military decorations and citations, she said.
Carbone and her husband regularly cut the grass at his gravesite, but it is surrounded by overgrowth that Yanaitis said is “like a jungle.”
She is hoping some agency or donors will help her come up with the funds to move him to be with her mother at a cemetery in the Back Mountain. She has not placed a headstone at her mother’s grave, holding out the possibility they will have a shared one.
“It’s disgraceful how he and other veterans in that cemetery put their lives on the line and are now treated this way,” Carbone said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.