12 Investigates: Church sues family over gravestone

Salem United Methodist Church is suing a family over this headstone.
Salem United Methodist Church is suing a family over this headstone.

GLOUCESTER, VA (WWBT) - - Wilmer Frank Soles was just "Soles" to his friends. He died from throat cancer on June 24 of last year. He had two last wishes, to be buried next to his mother and to have a nice headstone.

"I never thought it that this one headstone would have caused so much," said his daughter, Shawn Carter.

The $4,000 marker includes a picture of Soles' pick up truck and a photograph of him playing cards and drinking alcohol with his friend Butch.

"I didn't mean to offend anybody by what I put on there and I really didn't. I didn't see anything wrong with it," said Carter.

But the two inch tall bottle of Kentucky Gentleman bourbon has drawn the ire of Salem United Methodist Church. The church owns the cemetery and says this marker is offensive, not just to its members but to other families with its loved ones buried here.

Members asked the family to buff off the bottle. After a few letters back and forth, the family said no. Now the church is suing, giving the family three options: buff both pictures from the marker, remove the headstone altogether or remove their father's body.

"I did something to memorialize the way he lived his life," said Carter as she choked back tears. "I thought I did something good and now all of a sudden it's.... I'm sorry they don't like who he was, but that's who he was."

Carter is the first to admit her father was a heavy drinker.

"We had a lot of problems with him drinking and driving and but, like I said he never hurt anybody. except for himself. He was a good man. I mean, that's all I did was memorialize the way he lived his life," said Carter.

The church had no bylaws in place that said members have to approve the designs on headstones. The church declined our request for an interview. But we did obtain the lawsuit.

In it the church claims the family has no property rights to the burial plot. Lawyers also argue the family "had no right to erect a monument or stone that is offensive to the members of Salem United Methodist" or to those who have loved ones buried there.

For Carter, the Jimi Hendrix song lyrics she had inscribed on the headstone strike a new chord.

It reads, "I'm the one that has to die when it's time for me to die so let me live my life the way I want to and that's just what I did."

"And that's exactly what he did," said Carter.

The family has until Sunday September 2 to decide to either fight the lawsuit in court or to remove the pictures of the headstone.

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