Lexington woman sues cemetery; someone else is in mother's burial plot

Barbara Smith and her brother George Ellis Sr. cleaned the grave marker of Robert Chenault at Highland  Cemetery in Lexington. Smith sued the cemetery over the adjacent spot, which she claims her mother owns.
Barbara Smith and her brother George Ellis Sr. cleaned the grave marker of Robert Chenault at Highland Cemetery in Lexington. Smith sued the cemetery over the adjacent spot, which she claims her mother owns. Herald-Leader

Wanda Chenault planned every detail of her funeral — from the outfit she would be buried in to the Scripture read at her service.

She wanted to be buried at Highland Memorial Cemetery next to her husband, Robert Chenault, who died in 1978. Wanda Chenault planned for that about 30 years ago — shortly after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

When Chenault died last year her family discovered the grave site next to Robert Chenault — for which Wanda paid $150 in 1983 — was occupied by someone else's casket.

The mix-up has embroiled Wanda Chenault's family in a legal fight with the owners of Highland, a small cemetery on Lisle Industrial Drive off Leestown Road in the Meadowthorpe neighborhood.

Barbara Smith, Chenault's daughter and the administrator of her estate, filed a lawsuit in December against the cemetery and its current owners, Arthur and Marguerite Byers. Smith is seeking an undetermined amount of money for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, conversion and infliction of emotional distress.

Arthur Byers said his attorney advised him not to talk about the case. Robert L. Gullette III, one of the attorneys representing the cemetery, also declined to comment.

But a motion to dismiss the case filed in January sheds some light on the defense's argument.

The cemetery apparently was under different ownership in 1983 when Chenault signed the deed, according to the motion. Attorneys want the suit thrown out because Chenault's family failed to name as defendants J. Reginald Inc., the company that owned the cemetery at the time, or its president — Jerry R. Phelps — who signed the deed.

Secretary of state business filings indicate J. Reginald Inc. dissolved in 1995. The lawsuit is pending while the family prepares an amended complaint.

Meanwhile, the family says the cemetery's owners have continued to prevent them from fulfilling their mother's dying wish.

"There's no closure," Smith said. "It's like a painful open wound that our family is suffering from because we don't have that closure like most people get." .

Wanda Chenault never remarried after her husband died in 1978 of stomach cancer. The Veterans Affairs Medical Center nurse was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after her husband's death and was told she wouldn't live past 60.

She died at age 87. Beating the odds was just one of her many accomplishments, which included being named a Kentucky Colonel for volunteer work at places such God's Pantry Food Bank, and attending Shiloh Baptist Church for more than 70 years.

Ten of Chenault's family members and friends gathered at the cemetery last week and showed a Herald-Leader reporter where Robert Chenault was buried. A small metal marker was next to his headstone on the spot Wanda Chenault purchased. The marker does not have a name on it, and there is no headstone.

Smith said she initially thought the marker was placed there "so they would know Momma was supposed to go there."

Byers and the family realized someone was buried there the day after Chenault died, the lawsuit said.

Smith and her family said they are not sure who is buried there, but they have heard it was a young man who was shot and killed during the late 1990s.

After discovering the plot had been filled, Byers initially offered the family several options, which "were not satisfactory and subsequently were denied," the suit says.

Smith said the first option was to bury Chenault near her husband's grave, not next to it.

"Our fear was ... two or three years down the road, we would be in this situation again. We would have to dig her up and move her somewhere else because somebody else had bought that plot," she said. "We didn't want to take that chance. We shouldn't have to."

Another suggestion was to bury Wanda Chenault in another part of the cemetery and move her husband's headstone next to hers, leaving his casket where it was, Smith said.

Smith said Byers' third solution was for the family to cremate Chenault, avoiding the need for a burial.

"That's insensitive," Smith said. "We're already grieving, and you're acting like this is no big deal?"

The family decided to bury Wanda Chenault at Lexington Cemetery. They finalized the arrangements the day before her funeral and paid nearly $3,900.

The family prepared a 12-foot grave for Chenault so her husband's casket could be relocated to Lexington Cemetery and placed on top of hers.

"They wanted to be side by side, and now we're having to stack them up," said George Ellis Sr., Smith's brother. "And she was his equal."

Even that plan has been stalled. The family thinks the Byers' should pay to have Robert Chenault's casket dug up and moved to Lexington Cemetery.

Byers' attorney offered instead to move Robert Chenault's casket to another part of Highland Memorial Cemetery where his wife could be buried next to him. However, Smith said, she would have to pay to move her mother's casket.

"Either way, we've got another burial ahead of us," Smith said. "And it's been almost a year since my mother died."