Groundskeeper sues cemetery, alleging 2 bodies in single plots He says he defied practice in Laurel, then was fired

June 22, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Between 1986 and 1995, a cemetery in Laurel secretly buried two bodies in a single plot "on multiple occasions," a former groundskeeper at the cemetery alleges in a $7 million lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed in Prince George's County Circuit Court, claims that the groundskeeper, Francis E. Della of Fairfax, Va., was wrongfully fired in August after he told supervisors at Maryland National Memorial Park he would not perform any more double burials.

The suit is the first time that Della, who started working at the cemetery in February 1986, has made his charges public. After he was fired, Della took his allegations to Prince George's County prosecutors, who are investigating.

In the suit, Della alleges that on about a dozen occasions, the grounds crew found an already buried casket when it dug a new grave. When he reported this to supervisors, Della says he was told to "tamper with the existing coffin, remove it or crush it, remove any interment identification markers such as headstones, and not to inform either of the families involved."

Such burial practices are "contrary to the clear mandate of public policy under Maryland law," the suit says.

Cemetery officials declined to comment on the suit, filed June 14, but Director of Sales Mack Day has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

In the suit, which asks for $2 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, lawyers for Della contend that their client "has been in a constant state of depression and has been unable to find employment."

In answering Della's appeal to the state for unemployment benefits, the cemetery wrote that Della was fired after he used a slur, despite an earlier warning not to do so, to indicate a black woman on a list of employee telephone extensions he kept in his office.

But according to Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation records, a state hearing examiner ruled that Maryland National Memorial Park fabricated the warning notice in an attempt to justify its firing of Della.

The examiner, who found in favor of Della, also said the employer "virtually condoned" his list of phone extensions by not taking action until it had been hanging on the wall for 18 months.

Pub Date: 6/22/96

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