ROGERSVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – It’s been a week since HCMG, Inc. officially became the non-profit owner of Hawkins County Memorial Gardens.
The formation and ownership, years in the making after the cemetery’s former owner, Vickie Ringley, pleaded guilty to theft, forgery, and failure to follow cemetery regulations in 2017.
“My dad passed suddenly and I was so consumed by that grief that I turned it into sort of the action here and then I learned the people and the same stories and the people,” said Hannah Winegar, the non-profit’s president. “We are starting like a brand new organization, a brand new cemetery and we want to do big things.”
Winegar’s father passed away in 2012…his plot and plans were purchased well before from Ringley in the 1980s.
“It got him buried without issue but we could not get her to put his headstone down,” Winegar said. “She had all kinds of excuses it had come but it was broken so she had to send it back or then it came and it had the wrong death date on it. Then she had to send it back again and so we had all these issues.”
Ringley admitted to using her customer’s money, over $208,000, for her own needs.
Tennessee’s Department of Commerce and Insurance then stepped in to take over the cemetery and hired an outside party to manage.
“Most of the time it was up to the individual plot owners to mow and some would come in and mow maybe just a block of graves where some it was just growing up terribly,” Winegar said.
Four years ago, the cemetery went to auction but the deal fell through when the potential buyer backed out because of pending trust funds.
“The state would have legally abandoned the cemetery and the unsold plots would’ve forever remained unsold and it reverted to county property so it would have been up to the county to maintain it or not,” Winegar explained. “That didn’t really seem like a feasible solution to me because if nothing else I wanted it mowed and I was afraid that would not happen if it became county property.”
Others felt the same, creating a seven-member board to oversee the maintenance, sales, and operations of the cemetery.
“Hawkins County always has budgetary challenges and we couldn’t take the risk that this property would be abandoned with no financial support,” said secretary Jonathan Case.
A majority of the board members have loved ones buried in the cemetery and plan to be laid to rest there themselves. Case and Winegar say the board is also diverse in business skills like finance. There is also legal counsel.
“We believe we’ve got a set of professional skills, people that know how to evaluate business decisions and operational decisions and not just jump and try to do things without thinking it through carefully,” Case said. “We’ve consulted with other people who are involved in the cemetery industry. We’ve tried to inform ourselves.”
The board spent the past two years working towards the non-profit status.
“We’re not here to become businesspeople. We simply want to sustain this ground in the cemetery as is hallowed ground and keep it operating into the future,” Case said. “We are prepared to help those who have the need immediately and we also want to be able to help those that do purchase pre-need and do plan ahead.”
Improvements are already on the agenda.
“We want to restore the mausoleum, we want to fix our drainage issue,” said Winegar. “We want to put up new signs and new flags and a new office. All of that depends on plot sales.”
The new ownership is a bright spot after years of grief and frustration.
“I really hope it’s closure for all the families that are affected,” said Winegar. “There are roughly 3,000 plot owners and in a county the size of Hawkins County when you have 3,000 plot owners, I dare say every person in Hawkins County was somehow affected by this.”
Burial plots purchased from Ringley will still be honored. Vaults, headstones and other services purchased from Ringley can’t be honored.
“The only thing that we can honor is the actual burial plot,” said Winegar. “We would love to be able to honor the things that they’ve already paid for. We don’t have the financial means to do that. We’re starting fresh here.”
Tax deductible donations can be made to HCMG, Inc. at P.O. Box 392 in Surgoinsville, Tennessee 37873.