DUNEDIN, FL (WFLA) – After years spent buried in lawsuits, controversy and the anguish of grieving families, the Eternal Rest Memories Park cemetery at 2966 Belcher Road in Dunedin is changing hands. The troubled cemetery is also changing its name to Parklawn Memorial Cemetery.
“We have a new sign and there’s actually somebody answering the front door and the grass is mowed,” said incoming owner Barry Brewer of Brewer and Sons Funeral Homes and Cremation Services. Brewer’s family-owned company purchased the cemetery and the funeral business July 21 from Charles Scalisi III.
Scalisi was the target of frustration and anger voiced by a growing number of grieving families who patronized Eternal Rest. 8 On Your Side began investigating consumer complaints of Scalisi’s business practices in January. He refused news interviews time and again with the same refrain: “I’m busy helping families.” But his practice of not helping families was precisely the reason we wanted to speak to him.
We discovered that he seldom kept regular business hours, rarely answered customer phone calls, was infamous for not returning the cremains of deceased family members, and was the subject of numerous consumer complaints filed with the state. Scalisi was also going broke, facing imminent foreclosure and possibly the loss of his state license to practice in the funeral profession.
“I’d like the state of Florida to explain to me how they can let that man continue doing what he’s doing,” customer Allan Stuler asked us in February. We’ve been asking the same question ever since but state regulators in the offices of Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater have yet to respond, beyond insisting they are in “negotiations” with Scalisi to unwind his business.
Last month Scalisi was about to lose the cemetery in foreclosure and facing disciplinary action by the state when Brewer purchased the property out of foreclosure from the bank for about half a million dollars along with all interest in Scalisi’s funeral home business.
“I can’t fix everything overnight just like it didn’t take him overnight to cause all the problems,” Brewer said. “But the best way to handle those problems is one at a time and being proactive rather than reactive.”
This isn’t Brewer’s first experience as a turnaround agent in the death industry. In 2000 his family assumed control of a similarly-troubled cemetery and funeral business in Daytona Beach that ironically was owned by the same people who at that time owned Eternal Rest Memories Park.
Brewer is a successful second-generation funeral director whose son also works in the family business. He has deep roots and funeral business interests in Brooksville as well as six other locations in Tampa and elsewhere around Central Florida.
Our research reveals Brewer once faced an angry letter to the editor for throwing a Hernando Chamber of Commerce mixer in which smiling party-goers posed for photos in coffins and one coffin in his funeral home was employed as a beer cooler. Beyond that, there don’t appear to be any blemishes on Brewer’s ethics, business acumen or professional reputation. In person he is friendly, engaging, and candid.
In order to purchase Scalisi’s business Brewer had to win the approval of the same state regulators who are still mulling over some sort of discipline—and possibly license revocation—for Scalisi. The Florida Board of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services was desperate to find a savvy new owner so they wouldn’t have to assume control of the troubled cemetery along with all of its problems.
In a walking tour of the property Thursday Brewer showed us his plans to plant a hedge around the cemetery, level out sunken graves and provide grave markers for some grave sites that have none. He wants to eventually install vertical grave markers, create more walkways around the lake, and build a more dignified portico for funerals.
But for the moment he has his hands full with basic cleanup and landscaping and answering a cacophony of consumer complaints spurred by Scalisi’s business practices.
One of the recurring beefs that grieving families voiced to us was Scalisi’s practice of demanding more money for services their deceased loved ones had already purchased in full before their deaths. Brewer insists that although the cost of cremations now exceeds what people might have prepaid decades ago, he will honor any valid preneed contract presented to him—regardless whether he can locate a copy in Scalisi’s helter skelter office files.
“Whether we make money or not we have to do it,” Brewer said. “Number one it’s the right thing to do and number two, that’s what we do.”
Years ago, Scalisi took over the troubled cemetery with the same sort of claims Brewer is making. But Brewer insists he is morally and financially committed to fixing the problems and understands he is under close scrutiny because of all the wrongs that preceded him.
“Having people like you watch us, having the State of Florida Watch us and having our industry watch us, I know we’ve got to do the right thing,” Brewer said.
It’s not clear where Scalisi will go next while his disciplinary case is pending with the state, or if he even plans to continue in the profession. His current license expires at the end of August.