NORTH LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Cemeteries. We think of them as spiritual places, sacred ground, a final resting place. But in the cemetery where Laurie Astern buried her father, she can find no peace.
"I don't know if he's there," Astern said, referring to the Star of David Cemetery in North Lauderdale. "I don't know if he's out in the lake. I don't know where he is."
He is Seymour Astern, Laurie's father. He died of a rare blood disease in late October 2000. Days before he passed away, Laurie Astern said her brother purchased a double plot for her mother and father. It was in the Garden of Israel section, under a large tree: row twelve, lots 663 and 664. They picked the spot for its shade and privacy at the back of the cemetery.
"That was going to be my point to connect with my father," Astern recalled. "My spot."
But when the family returned for gravesite services the second of November, that spot was somewhere else about 40 yards away, not under the big shady tree. The siblings immediately told the funeral director.
"Initially they denied it and then they admitted, 'Yeah, we sold you the site, but he's being buried over here in another site,'" Astern remembered distinctly.
A week later, Astern said she went back to the cemetery and couldn't find her father's grave.
"There was nothing on the ground indicating my father was in this area," Astern told Local 10 crime specialist John Turchin. "All I can tell you is I could not find my dad in that area at all, and I know where he was buried."
Astern demanded answers and again she said she was told she was mistaken, that the gravesite services were held in a different location than she recalled.
"It's totally different," Astern showed Turchin as they recently walked through the cemetery. "This is the left side. He's now on the right side. This is the back part of the cemetery where we were. He's now in the front -- by a sidewalk."
For the next couple of years, Astern and her siblings continued searching for answers and their father. Then, during one of her weekly visits, she said she noticed a number of graves were dug up, including her dad's.
"I couldn't believe my eyes," Astern told Turchin as they looked at photos she had taken that day. "You can see, everything has been dug up, not only the grass around it. You can tell the stone has been removed."
She said she immediately went to the office.
"They said we went out and we checked and there's a coffin there," Astern said.
Astern said she later found out a state examiner following up on her complaints claims to have dug up Seymour Astern's grave to confirm he was inside.
"If they did that, they did it without my permission, and without a rabbi, as I requested," said Laurie Astern. "How am I supposed to believe my father's in there if I wasn't there and there was no rabbi?"
Astern has filed complaints with Service Corporation International and any state agency that will listen, including the governor's office. So, far, they've fallen on deaf ears.
In 2003, SCI agreed to a $100 million settlement in a massive lawsuit involving Menorah Gardens in Southwest Ranches and Menorah Gardens Cemetery near West Palm Beach after it was accused of overselling plots and moving bodies to make room for new ones. It settled for another $14 million with the Florida Attorney General's Office over issues related to that case.
In 2012, a lawsuit filed in Palm Beach County sought $200 million in damages from SCI and other entities for claims that remains were lost and improperly disposed of at Star of David Memorial Gardens Cemetery and Funeral Chapel and Bailey Memorial Gardens in North Lauderdale, where Seymour Astern is supposedly buried.
The latest suit and the company's track record has Laurie Astern less than optimistic about learning if her father is really buried where the cemetery claims.
"I don't know where he is," Astern dejectedly said, talking about her dad. "I want to know. I understand I may never know. I know that's reality. I may never know, but at least I've done everything I could to find out."