‘Garbage Dump:’ NJ Families Upset at Dismal Conditions of Cemetery

“I have no cemetery experience,” the man who runs the cemetery said. “I am a lawyer”

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Families who laid their loved ones to rest at Lake Nelson Memorial Park in Piscataway, New Jersey, are demanding answers. 

“It just looks like a garbage dump,” said Judy Beekman, who has relatives buried there. Visiting them can be challenging, she says.

My father has been here since 1976 and we used to have to search for his stone because they ride over the stone, there’s grass on them. It’s a sin.

JUDY BEEKMAN

For three decades, Lake Nelson had been run by a court-appointed director.  Records show that since 2000, nearly a dozen formal complaints were filed against the cemetery.  Many of them detail similar gripes: neglect, roads with potholes and cracks and overgrown grass and weeds.

George Mayer buried his son Brian at the cemetery 28 years ago. He says the plot wasn't always in such a decrepit condition.

He wants to move his grave, but they have 31 other family plots here – purchased a generation ago by his relatives.

The mausoleum, where many families are buried in crypts, has a damaged roof that causes water to leak into the building. The extent of the water damage is not clear, according to Joseph Cantanese, who was appointed cemetery receiver, putting him in charge of the facility, in August.

He admits he has no experiencing managing such a business.

“I have no cemetery experience,” Catanese said. “I am a lawyer.”

Catanese is a private practice lawyer, but he also serves as an attorney for New Brunswick.  At one point, he was the city's police director. Catanese says he did not apply to be the cemetery receiver. He was appointed to the role, despite the fact that other people with cemetery management experience applied for the job -- including one company that has a history of turning around failing cemeteries.  

“I believe I was asked by the judge who handled this case, to be a receiver because of his experience with me and my experience with him,” said Catanese. “It’s been positive over the years.”

But under Catanese, many families say it hasn’t always been a positive experience for them. Pictures of overflowing garbage, flags thrown out in dumpsters and cracks in the crypts – are raising concerns and tempers.

“When there are big funerals here, garbage is left here for days at a time,” said Ed Nugent. 

A spokesperson for the New Jersey cemetery board, which monitors and inspects cemeteries, says they are working with Catanese to improve conditions. 

"The board is not authorized to appoint or choose a receiver,” said the spokesperson, but can “petition the court to remove a court-appointed receiver, due to mismanagement of cemetery operations or trust funds.”

For his part, Catanese says he is trying. 

“I have experience running other businesses,” he said, “I have confidence that I can do what needs to be done.”

The New Jersey Department of Consumer Affairs urges families to file complaints if they do not feel their concerns are being addressed.

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