Funeral Director Clayton Smart was prepared for things to get ugly. At a news conference Thursday morning, he had police officers in attendance in case things got out of hand.
Smart began the news conference by asking dozens of people in search of answers to leave the building, but eventually let them stay when they promised not to confront him about why he can't honor their prepaid funeral policies.
"The reason we cannot honor them is we are a totally different corporation," he said as the conference began.
The costs of funeral services have gone up according to Smart, who purchased all three Forest Hill Funeral homes in December of 2004. He said he will have to charge anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000 more than the face value of thousands of pre-paid policies.
"Inflation has struck," he said.
Some policy holders in attendance were not happy with Smart's answers.
"In good conscience, how can you stand there and you are stealing from a person that just died cause you're not honoring the contract?" asked policy holder Cordell Perkins.
Smart accused previous owners of mismanaging a multi million dollar trust fund, where policy money has been invested for decades. "I'm doing everything I can to track it down," he said. "Personally, I think it went in somebody's pocket."
There are more than 13,000 existing policies that Smart says he doesn't have to honor. Smart told reporters he knew that before he bought the three Forest Hill Funeral Homes.
"I was told, I had a legal opinion on this, that we're not obligated to honor any more than face value," he said.
That statement directly conflicted with what some policy holders said they were told.
"Before I bought this I called the State of Tennessee, and they said it didn't matter how many transfers was made, that they had to honor this 100%," said policy holder Jim Traylor.