EAST NORRITON, Pa. - It is such an emotionally-draining, heartbreaking time when you lose someone you love. And a local family says it was made that much worse by a company that would not give them the stone for the grave.
They had paid up front and in full. So, they called FOX 29 Investigates. Jeff Cole reports on what happened next.
James Joseph Lavin's final resting place is St. Patrick's Cemetery in East Norriton.
With its flags and seasonal decorations, the grave has all the markings of care offered by a family that deeply misses a loved one.
"He was a joke teller," said widow Anne Lavin. "He was a very sociable guy. He laughed all of the time. He was a good guy."
"I remember tough love. I can certainly say that about my dad, too," said their son, Joe Lavin.
He was the father of six who spent his career as a cop, rising to the rank of lieutenant in the Philadelphia force before becoming the chief in Jenkintown.
When he died at 84, his family paid nearly $4,000 up front to Lifestone by Stefan of Upper Darby for his gravestone.
That was way back on May 8, 2014.
More than 16 months later, and there was no stone marking James Lavin's grave.
"It's sad. It will make you cry because you want it finished, you want it there," Anne Lavin said.
And what's worse? A photo shows the stone, fully engraved and buffed, at the Vermont company where the engraving was done. Lifestone sent the Lavins a picture back on May 13 of this year, claiming it was "scheduling delivery."
But four months later, and James Lavin's grave had no headstone.
"The stone is already made," Joe Lavin said. "We have a picture of it. It's just that it's not being released, it's not given to us, it's not placed. What do we do next? Where do we go?"
Anne Lavin added, "I almost feel I am being held ransom, or the stone is being held for ransom for something.
We paid for it, and it's sitting there since May."
Lifestone by Stefan owns a group of memorial companies stretching across the region. Greg Stefan is a company executive.
We met Stefan in September when Pat Monroe and her family of Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood called to complain.
"When you come here, see the stone, what do you think?" Cole asked Monroe.
"I'm sad. It's upsetting," she said.
The Monroe family said 10 months after they paid Lifestone $2,400 to complete the engraving of her parents' stone and place their pictures in it, the work hadn't been done.
Asked how it makes her feel, Monroe said, "Horrible, horrible."
Stefan told us a rough winter and difficulty in reproducing the photos slowed the work. Then, he made a big promise: "We're going to take care of this … we're going to fully refund Mrs. Monroe. And we're also going to get the work done for her."
"So, all of her money back and you'll do the work for free?" Cole asked.
"Yes," replied Stefan, "all the money back and we're going to do the work for free because we want her to be happy."
Monroe says the engraving work has now been done, but the pictures are not recessed in the stone as she ordered. She says her $2,400 has not been returned as promised, but last week Stefan called to say that they would secure the stones to the marker and her money would be returned when her "file was closed."
The Lavins contacted FOX 29 after seeing Monroe's story.
"Why do we have to go through this?" Joe Lavin asked. "How does this man put his head down at night knowing that, you know, there's people out there chasing after him for a stone?"
Anne Lavin says she kept a hand-scrawled tally of the repeated calls she made to Lifestone. She says some of the calls were never returned. Others were with delivery dates that weren't kept.
They hired a lawyer who sent a letter to Lifestone in July demanding immediate delivery or their money back.
A late August date was promised. It never happened.
"It's frustrating. It's disheartening. It's, you know, disgraceful," Joe Lavin said.
What's going on? Trouble for Lifestone.
"So, the 'F' rating has been earned over time," said Andrew Goode, regional vice president for the Mid-Atlantic Better Business Bureau.
He says his agency has slapped Lifestone with that "F" for failing to responding to dozens of complaints and making emotionally-frail consumers wait for headstones.
"We've seen a year. We've seen months and months. We've seen consumers that have never been satisfied," Goode said. "And we don't know how it turns out because the company has failed to answer us."
Court records in Montgomery County show a Hatfield woman won a $6,900 judgment last month against Lifestone and Greg Stefan.
Maria Rodriguez says over a year ago her family paid Lifestone $2,400 for a headstone for her mother's grave and got nothing.
As for James Lavin's stone, on Oct. 5 FOX 29 Investigates left a message for Greg Stefan asking why the marker hadn't been placed.
One day later, and it was there.
Stefan left a voice message on Cole's cell phone wondering why we'd called in the first place: "I'm not sure why you called. The monument is installed in the cemetery. And as far as I know she (Anne Lavin) is happy with everything."
We played it for Joe Lavin.
"It's ludicrous that he would sit there and have the gall to say such a thing, that we are satisfied," the son said. "And it sounds like he is insinuating that there was no problem. And there has certainly been a problem for the past, what, 17 months?"
Despite our repeated questions, Lifestone did not explain its grade of "F" from the Better Business Bureau.
On the Lavins, the company's lawyer says permitting issues and a change in staffing and hours at St. Patrick's Cemetery led to the delay. He also said a special lift had to be used to place the stone.
The office manager for the cemetery says that's wrong. She says the only change in hours was seasonal and the staff has been around for years. She adds the cemetery's forklift could have been used.
The priest overseeing the cemetery says Lifestone has been removed from its list of gravestone providers, Cole reported.