In Michigan, Not Even the Dead Are Safe

HE big cemetery with the name like a golf course out on the Interstate across from the mall was seized by a state conservator this winter. Seems someone took the money — $70 million in prepaid trust funds — and ran. It’s one of those theme park enterprises with lawn crypts and cheap statuary and an army of telemarketers calling up locals in the middle of dinner to sell us all our ”commemorative estates.”

”You don’t want to be a burden to your children, do you?” So says the ”memorial counselor” with the sales pitch and the flip chart and the forms to ”sign here” on the bottom line — the bargain-in-the-briefcase peace of mind. Why not? I say, though never out loud. My children have all been burdens to me. Isn’t that what the best of life is — bearing our burdens honorably?

What is known for certain is that an Oklahoman with oil interests conspired to buy Michigan’s largest consortium of graveyards from a local lawyer who’d bought them from a Canadian mergers-and-acquisitions company that went belly-up in the late 1990s for all of the usual reasons.

According to Michigan’s attorney general, Mike Cox, the Oklahoman, Clayton Smart, took over 28 Michigan cemeteries in August 2004 from the lawyer, Craig Bush. Over the next couple of months, Messrs. Smart and Bush allegedly managed to remove the millions that luckless consumers had prepaid for graves and markers and perpetual care under the none-too-watchful gaze of the state’s regulators and auditors, who finally noticed, 18 months later, that the money was gone.

On Thursday, Mr. Cox announced that Mr. Smart has been charged with 39 felony counts, including racketeering and embezzlement: ”My goals are clear: protect the public interest, secure the operation of these cemeteries, and criminally charge those who are responsible for embezzling this money.”

The local version of a national cartoon, the ”Smart-and-Bush-scam” seems a perfect metaphor for life in southeastern lower Michigan — another of those ”heckuva job” imbroglios involving robber barons, the fecklessness of government agencies, and better-late-than-never comeuppances. It’s a kind of commemorative Enron: the money gone missing while the erstwhile state cemetery commissioner, who was either incompetent, negligent or complicit, gets ”reassigned” within the Department of Labor and Economic Growth.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments’ recent projections on labor and economic growth call for the worst economic forecast of our lifetimes. The news for Detroit automakers goes from bad to worse. Home sales are slumping, unemployment is up, state workers may soon be sent home without pay, and just as we are catching new criminals, we’re letting others go because we can’t afford to keep state prisons open.

Our National Guard units, haggard after multiple deployments, have lost nearly 60 percent of their ready reserve of equipment and personnel, and another local family has just buried a son sent home in a closed coffin, under the radar, lest anyone see. The flag outside the funeral home is permanently at half-mast and a new crop of presidential candidates are telemarketing now — dialing for dollars so they can buy airtime to tell us all how, the shape of the planet notwithstanding, they’ve got a program to make it all better.

Out here in Middle America, not even the dead and gone can rest in peace. Still, we pray for peace and carry on. Like politics, all funerals are local.

April 29, 2007
The New York Times