VALLEJO – A prominent Vallejo business owner could lose his license to manage cemeteries due to a state enforcement action that accuses his businesses of turning in financial documents years late and failing to maintain cemetery grounds.
Buck Kamphausen, who owns Skyview Memorial Lawn in Vallejo, is facing a formal accusation by the state agency overseeing cemetery operations alleging Kamphausen violated state regulations at four of his facilities: Skyview, Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery in San Rafael, and Chapel of the Light in Fresno.
California’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau (CFB) filed the accusation against Kamphausen in June. It outlined eight causes for discipline and asked an administrative law judge to revoke or suspend his license to manage cemeteries. That accusation also seeks to revoke the license of his business partner, Edward Wilkes.
Most of the causes for discipline relate to all four cemeteries’ handling of yearly financial reports. The accusation also alleges that Kamphausen has not complied with orders to maintain the grounds at two of his cemeteries.
Kamphausen is contesting the CFB’s accusation. In an interview with the Vallejo Sun, Kamphausen called the accusation “inaccurate” and said he and Wilkes have been cooperating with the CFB to address it.
“We have been in compliance and working with the state all along,” Kamphausen said. “We have an accusation made by the bureau, but we feel it is erroneous.”
In an email, the bureau’s spokesperson, Peter Fournier, stated the CFB cannot discuss open cases but pointed out that such cases are not always resolved quickly.
“There can be a considerable period of time between the date of filling an Accusation and the resolution of the matter,” Fournier wrote.
Kamphausen has owned Skyview Memorial Lawn for over 50 years
Kamphausen has deep connections to Solano County and Vallejo. He has lived in Vallejo since the early 70s, when he first acquired Skyview Memorial along with Fairfield Funeral Home.
Kamphausen is active and influential in Vallejo politics through his involvement in organizations like the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce and the Vallejo chapter of the NAACP. He frequently contributes to local political campaigns, such as Solano County District Attorney Krishna Abrams’s successful reelection campaign last year, Vallejo City Councilmember Diosdado “JR” Matulac’s council bid, and former planning commissioner Chris Platzer’s failed bid for Vallejo City Council. In 2018, he bought a 9mm Glock handgun for $5,000 to support Sheriff Tom Ferrara’s reelection campaign.
Kamphausen and Evergreen Cemetery Association, a nonprofit on which he serves as CEO, own at least five buildings in downtown Vallejo, including the USA World Classics Event Center. Kamphausen owns 15 funeral homes, crematories and cemeteries across California. His other businesses include auto and real estate sales.
The CFB alleges that Kamphausen has not been reporting finances
The CFB’s accusation alleges that Kamphausen violated California law by not submitting Annual Endowment Care Fund and Special Care Fund Reports for four of his cemeteries to the state in a timely manner.
According to Fournier, CFB’s spokesperson, cemeteries are required to turn in annual reports related to these finances “to avoid mismanagement and ensure the protection of consumer funds.” When cemeteries have no more plots to be sold, they rely on income from funds seeded by the one-time purchase fees for plots to ensure their continued care. California code requires such cemeteries maintained through endowment be “kept in a condition so as to prevent the cemetery's offensive deterioration.”
In total, Kamphausen’s cemeteries were cited 30 times over their reports in the last dozen years.
While the cemeteries paid all the fees associated with the citations, amounting to over $60,000, they turned in annual reports hundreds of days late. In one case, Vallejo’s Skyview Memorial Lawn turned in its report over three years late. When the CFB accusation was filed in June, Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery and Chapel of the Light still had not turned in their 2020 annual reports, while Skyview and Evergreen cemeteries had turned in neither their 2020 nor 2019 reports.
Kamphausen attributed the late and absent report submissions to “mistakes” made by an accountant who works for his cemeteries.
“I had an employee for about 50 years who was our in-house accounting person,” Kamphausen said. “In the last five years she made a lot of mistakes.”
Kamphausen reported that his cemeteries are now revisiting their reports to address any errors.
“We decided to go back to 2015 to make sure that all the mistakes or things that were not done properly were done,” he said. “At this point, everything is the way it should be, and it’s in the final phase of being completed by our outside auditors.”
According to the state's accusation, Kamphausen’s cemeteries received 10 of the CFB citations relating to annual reports prior to 2015. Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery received the first such citation in 2006.
The CFB alleges that Kamphausen has failed to maintain cemetery grounds
CFB’s accusation also alleges that Kamphausen did not follow orders from five different citations in 2020 ordering him to maintain Evergreen and Mt. Tamalpais Cemeteries. Three of these citations included fines which totaled $1,000.
Kamphausen and his cemeteries paid the fines, but the CFB alleges they did not follow other orders in the citations to water the grounds sufficiently at both Evergreen and Mt. Tamalpais and to control “vermin” at Mt. Tamalpais.
Steve Gurnee, an attorney who is representing Kamphausen to contest the accusation, pointed out that his client had been ordered to water the cemetery grounds during a drought. He also said that Evergreen, which is full and relies on its endowment profits for maintenance costs, has in the past had insufficient money from the fund to water the sites to the extent the CFB was asking, and said his clients are only required to water and maintain the site to the extent that those funds allow.
According to Fournier, there are “no exceptions within the law” for not maintaining a cemetery and it is the “responsibility of the cemetery authority to maintain a healthy Endowment Care Fund” for such maintenance. Due to the state’s diverse climate, the CFB doesn’t require that all cemeteries have grass. But California code requires that cemetery caretakers prevent such sites from “becoming unkept and places of reproach and desolation.”
Kamphausen said that the “vermin” he was cited for at Mt. Tamalpais were moles and ground squirrels. He acknowledged having them and wanting to eradicate them as they “dig holes and cause a mess,” but said he has been unable to due to California law.
“In this state you cannot poison them,” Kamphausen said. “So you can’t kill them.”
California’s Fish and Game Code classifies moles and ground squirrels as “nongame animals.” It’s illegal to poison nongame animals, but it is legal to kill or move them using other methods, including using certain traps.
Kamphausen said overseeing cemeteries is “a complicated business” that involves “a lot of maintenance” but that people are ultimately happy with the services his cemeteries provide and his facilities have received “no consumer complaints.”
But the CFB’s accusation states that on three occasions in 2021, a field representative inspected Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery “in response to several consumer complaints regarding the cemetery’s care of its grounds.” During these inspections the representative reported finding the grounds “dried out and brown, with weed growth” and that “many of the grave markers were obscured by dirt and debris, evidently as the result of rodent activity.”
The majority of Yelp reviews for Evergreen and Mount Tamalpais Cemetery are negative. Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery has 33 reviews, and 23 of them gave the cemetery one star. One review written by “Laura K.” reported arriving “to a dried brown field.”
“There were dirt mounds on many of the stones and I could not even find my parents or my grandparents,” she wrote. “I left in tears.”
Kamphausen has faced allegations and disciplinary actions before
The accusation against Kamphausen is the latest in a series of accusations and disciplinary actions. Two of these accusations —one related to Chapel of The Light and the other related to Evergreen Cemetery —ultimately resulted in settlements where he admitted varying degrees of culpability and agreed to fulfill disciplinary orders.
The most recent of those accusations was filed in October 2020 against Chapel of the Light along with both Kamphausen and the site’s funeral director, Michael J. Rabara.
The accusation outlined a dozen causes for discipline for failing to properly manage “preneed funds,” which consist of purchases consumers made at Chapel of the Light in advance of and in preparation for their own or a loved one’s death.
Under the settlement, Kamphausen and Rabara accepted “the truth of each and every charge and allegation” listed in the accusation and Chapel of the Light’s license to operate was placed on a three-year probationary period. Several terms of the probation required increased transparency for Chapel of the Light’s finances, such as regularly sharing bank statements with the CFB.
Evergreen Cemetery reached its own settlement as a result of a CFB accusation from February 2015 which alleged Kamphausen, Wilkes, and Evergreen Vice President John Voss “violated the law” by “failing to provide a sufficient supply of water to keep the cemetery's grass and plants green” and failing to submit annual reports on time. An administrative law judge found both allegations to be true.
The Department of Consumer Affairs ordered Evergreen Cemetery and Kamphausen’s cemetery manager license to be placed on a four-year probationary period.
Evergreen and Kamphausen, however, petitioned a state court to intervene by arguing that the requirement that they provide “sufficient water” to the grounds was “unconstitutionally vague.” Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny granted their petition and ordered that the Department of Consumer Affairs “reconsider” their probation.
Evergreen and Kamphausen settled the case in May 2017. They admitted culpability for the allegations relating to their annual financial reports but not for insufficiently watering the grounds. The probationary status was set aside and a new order required Evergreen and Kamphausen to post a notice that they will follow “the cemetery's maintenance standards, including any watering provisions” in the cemetery’s office.
In 2015, Kamphausen, along with a nonprofit that owned Sunrise Memorial Cemetery in Vallejo, received an accusation alleging they failed to maintain and properly manage the cemetery. At the time of the accusation, Kamphausen served as the nonprofit’s trustee.
As part of the accusation, CFB investigated the facility and found monuments broken or lying in pieces, missing faceplates on crypts, unmown and brown grass, roadways in disrepair, green mold in a mausoleum, uneven and sunken burial grounds, fallen trees and branches on graves, and trash and debris in public areas.
During the investigation, a cemetery manager, who was unnamed in the accusation, admitted the nonprofit lacked “the funds or staff to properly care for the site” and resigned the day after he made that admission.
After receiving the accusation, the nonprofit’s board transferred the rights and title to the cemetery to Hillside Baptist Church of Vallejo. Starting in 2016, the nonprofit stopped turning in tax forms to the Internal Revenue Service. That same year, an administrative law judge issued a decision stating that the facility was “in a state of serious disrepair and poor maintenance,” and those who had family members buried at the site were “justifiably upset about the circumstances.” But because Kamphausen did not own the cemetery or act as its manager, the judge dismissed the accusation.
Neither Kamphausen nor Wilkes have faced disciplinary actions as a result of the current accusation and the case remains ongoing.
Kamphausen minimized the significance of the accusation.
“There’s only an accusation,” he said. “Accusations don’t mean much.”
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THE VALLEJO SUN NEWSLETTER
Investigative reporting, regular updates, events and more
- Buck Kamphausen
- Skyview Memorial Lawn
- Evergreen Cemetery
- Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery
- San Rafael
- Chapel of the Light
- Cemetery and Funeral Bureau
- Edward Wilkes
- Peter Fournier
- Fairfield Funeral Home
- Vallejo Chamber of Commerce
- Evergreen Cemetery Association
- USA World Classics Event Center
- Michael J. Rabara
- Steve Gurnee
- John Voss
- Department of Consumer Affairs
- Michael Kenny
- Hillside Baptist Church of Vallejo
- Internal Revenue Service
Zack Haber is an Oakland journalist and poet who covers labor, housing, schools, arts and more. They have written for the Oakland Post, Oaklandside and the Appeal.
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