MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Families whose loved one's remains were mishandled and abused were in court Tuesday suing the cemetery at the center of the controversy.
More than 1,200 families are suing Galilee Memorial Cemetery in Bartlett and 22 funeral homes for improperly burying bodies, mishandling remains, and crushing caskets.
"How can you say you did your job when you didn't do the most important part of it," attorney Kathryn Barnett said during testimony Tuesday.
The case is so large, a special courtroom had to be constructed to accommodate the trial. The third floor of the Shelby County building--ordinarily an open space--has been transformed into Chancellor Jim Kyle's courtroom.
The large crowd didn't hold back early Tuesday during testimony. At times the crowd reacted to witnesses answering questions on the stand.
"This is not a football game. This is a trial in a court of law," Kyle scolded the crowd. "Folks have gone out of their way to try to make this process work and to be quite frank, I'm disappointed in some of the folks of you sitting out here...talking, making noises, laughing, applauding."
Kyle also criticized parents who brought their children to the proceedings.
"If there are school-aged children in this audience, this court is going to ask a pretty serious question when we get back from our break as to why those children aren't in school," Kyle said.
Barnett and other attorneys for the families involved in the lawsuit spent Tuesday morning pointing out to jurors that the licensed funeral directors should have checked to make sure Galilee Memorial Gardens was operating up to Tennessee standards.
Instead, the cemetery is accused of burying bodies on top of other bodies, not recording where remains were buried, and in the words of one attorney, "acting like a drive thru."
"This wasn't standard operating procedure; this wasn't the way it was at the expensive cemeteries. There should've been red flags everywhere," Barnett said.
Attorneys defending the funeral home directors told jurors it was the responsibility of the cemetery to ensure burials were conducted properly. They say the funeral director's responsibility ends when cemetery personnel take possession of the deceased's body.
"These funeral homes have 600 years of experience. They cannot all be wrong," attorney Andy Owens said.
Owens also said state regulators knew of complaints against Galilee Memorial Gardens but the cemetery was allowed to keep operating anyway.
"These funeral homes and these funeral directors don't deserve to be punished," Owens said.
Testimony in this case is expected to last a few weeks.
The families involved in the lawsuit are seeking financial compensation.