A new start for Suburban Memorial Gardens after cemetery fraud case
Richard Miller has spent the past three years bringing new life to Suburban Memorial Gardens Cemetery, working to rebuild trust as he restores the cemetery.
Its previous owners, married couple Theodore and Arminda Martin, defrauded 200 customers out of $500,000 since they bought the property in 2003. They admitted to embezzling the money paid for various cemetery services and instead using it for personal gain. In 2020, each was sentenced to more than a year in prison.
The Martins' crimes sent shockwaves through the community as relatives of those buried in the cemetery scrambled to take over maintenance duties while local authorities searched for a new owner. Miller ultimately purchased the Conewago Township cemetery in 2019 for $500 when the York County Tax Claim Bureau put it up for a repository sale to recoup back property taxes.
"My saving grace is that the families were really compassionate about a new owner coming in," Miller said, "and understanding that what transpired before me, it had nothing to do with me. They were willing to give me a chance."
In 2019, learning how to care for and run a cemetery was like "drinking water from a fire hose," Miller said. Prior to purchasing the cemetery, Miller had no experience in the cemetery industry nor any knowledge of the Martins' history.
When he learned about what the Martins had done, Miller knew he needed to connect with the affected families and build new relationships.
"Before people could trust me, they had to know who I was and how I operated," Miller said. "They didn't want another person would come in after the debacle to take advantage of them."
The cemetery itself also needed a lot of work.
In the time after the Martins' arrest and before Miller's ownership, families of people buried at the gardens came together and worked out a schedule to maintain the grounds, Miller said. The families formed their own community and a Facebook group called Friends of Suburban Memorial Gardens Cemetery. Miller said he owes a lot to the families.
"I would think that I was actually adopted into the community," Miller said, explaining how the families are still very much involved with the cemetery.
Three years since Miller bought the cemetery, several of the families continue to work alongside him to maintain the grounds, Miller said. The difference is that they're now compensated for their work.
What originally drew Miller, whose background is in real estate, was the beautiful, serene environment of the place with its view of the hills in the distance.
"The view back here is what drew me to the cemetery," Miller said on a recent afternoon, gesturing to the distant blue hills behind the gardens. "It's very peaceful."
Miller wanted the cemetery to be "a place where you can get solace from. You can come pay your respects and just know that your loved ones are taken care of."
The cemetery is divided into nine sections, called gardens, and has about 10,000 burial spaces in total. One of the sections was designed specifically to allow owners and their pets to be buried together. Another serves as a veterans' cemetery, and yet another for pets.
Only about a quarter of the burial spots are occupied, Miller said.
While there are still plots available for purchase, Miller has been focused on rebuilding trust with the community and serving the families of loved ones buried at the cemetery, he said. Most of his business comes from arrangements made before his time at the gardens, he said.
On Oct. 1, the cemetery is holding its fall cleanup day. Families and those with loved ones at the gardens are encouraged to pick up graveside ornaments before the cleanup; however, ornaments not picked up in advance will be kept at the office for a week afterward.
Miller encourages community members to reach out to him or schedule a meeting via phone at (717) 292-2141 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Reach Noel Miller at NMiller3@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @TheNoelM.