State to investigate new allegations that Tennessee funeral director continues to exploit grieving immigrant families

By: and - February 25, 2021 4:01 am
Lara Castillos featured

Ramon Lara Castillo. (Photo: submitted)

A Tennessee funeral director and embalmer who surrendered his licenses early in 2020 after he failed to return bodies to Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala for burials has continued to offer funeral services in immigrant communities — and, in at least one recent instance, neglected for months to deliver remains to a grieving family.

Roommates and family of Ramon Lara Castillo, a 63-year-old Nashville house painter who died of liver cancer in October, said this week they do not know where the man’s remains are being kept four months after his death.

At the recommendation of friends, Castillo’s roommates had turned to Reid Van Ness to arrange for Castillo’s remains to be returned to his sister in Mexico. 

Van Ness relinquished his state licenses seven months before Castillo’s death, amid a state investigation that discovered at least 10 bodies he had promised, but failed, to return overseas for funerals, the Tennessee Lookout reported earlier this month. 

The bodies had lain in coolers at local funeral homes for between two and 11 months and were in various states of decay. Van Ness admitted to falsifying shipping documents sent to the family in Guatemala for one body that was not sent home for six months, state records showed.

In an October 30 receipt for $1,800 handwritten in Spanish on spiral notebook paper shortly after Castillo’s death, Van Ness — who by then was not licensed to provide funeral services — promised to arrange for cremation and transportation of the deceased man’s ashes to Mexico. The receipt was given to Castillo’s roommates, who had raised the money among friends and the community to pay Van Ness.

By January of this year, Van Ness had stopped responding to increasingly frantic messages from Hugo Fentanes Gonzalez, one of Castillo’s roommates, in text exchanges shared with the Lookout.

“I don’t have the nerves nor the money to travel to look for him,” Castillo’s sister, Diana Isabel Lara Castillo, said tearfully from her home in Veracruz, Mexico on Tuesday.

After her brother’s death, she repeatedly asked Van Ness when her brother’s body would arrive, she said. She paid for a cross to mark his grave. She never received a definite answer. Through text messages, Van Ness would offer changing answers about when the body would arrive. 

Castillo’s sister, the only surviving family member involved in trying to bring the body back, said she was never asked to provide information needed to fill out a death certificate, a statement of funeral goods and services selected, a cremation permit or a cremation authorization form — required, in most instances, to be signed by a next of kin.  

Before a body can be cremated in Tennessee, each of those documents must be filed, said Randy Nash, president of the Tennessee Association of Funeral Directors and director for Sumner Funeral & Cremation.

“It was all lies,” Castillo, the sister, said. “He never sent anything.”

A spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, the agency that includes funeral and embalmers licensing boards, confirmed Van Ness has been unlicensed as a funeral director and embalmer since March 6.  

The department has received no recent complaints about Van Ness, said Kevin Walters, the spokesman. 

When the Lookout shared the allegations made by Castillo’s sister and friends, Walters said the department encouraged the family and any others to file an online complaint or contact the agency’s customer service center, which offers Spanish language services, at 615-741-5062.

“This is new information,” Walters said. “We take all matters seriously and are looking into this case.”

Reached Tuesday via text, Van Ness did not directly respond to questions about the location of Castillo’s remains or when Castillo’s sister could expect to receive him for burial in Mexico.

“In safe custody,” he said in response. After being asked multiple times to provide the body’s location or shipping tracking information, Van Ness replied: “Do not make a mountain out of a molehill.”

In a series of texts that followed, Van Ness, 53, made various claims. 

He said he was in the process of creating a nonprofit spiritual/religious organization for “community services purposes.” He said “since now I am a consumer like everyone else I can now refer people with or without prejudice to take care of necessary services.” He said he was a volunteer. He took donations sometimes. He often used his own money to help. 

He cited examples of some “ungrateful” families, who refused to acknowledge his efforts at funeral services. He said he broke no laws because his work for families took place through churches, and “everything inside the church doors or auspices is off limits to the board,” he wrote. 

He admitted responsibility for the care of Castillo’s body then blamed his own health issues for the delay.  He ended a text exchange by saying he had to “go help other families.”

He separately sent a Facebook message to a Lookout reporter. 

“Be very careful what you say,” the message read. “Check your facts.”

Van Ness and two funeral homes in Middle Tennessee, where he stored bodies when he still had his license, are the subject of a $4 million federal lawsuit brought by the family of Freddy Aroldo Cristostoma Hernandez, a Robertson County man murdered in October 2019. Hernandez’ body wasn’t returned home to Guatemala until a lawyer intervened, six months later. 

Saddler Funeral Home in Lebanon, where Reid Van Ness stored bodies for months at a time. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Saddler Funeral Home in Lebanon, where Reid Van Ness stored bodies for months at a time. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“We don’t know, there could be more (bodies),” said John Morris, the Nashville attorney representing the Hernandez family in the suit filed against Van Ness and the funeral homes. Morris is seeking other victims to join the lawsuit.

Van Ness, for years, was among a small number of funeral directors and embalmers in Tennessee who spoke Spanish and assisted Latino families through the complicated bureaucracy involved in delivering bodies of loved ones from Tennessee to their native countries for burial. 

Formerly licensed as both an embalmer and a funeral director, Van Ness once ran his own funeral home in the Woodbine section of Nashville, then worked as a “trade” embalmer — a contract worker who served immigrant families in at least half a dozen funeral homes in Shelbyville, Nashville, Lebanon and Murfreesboro. 

He worked with families directly, but relied on at least two funeral homes to store bodies — Saddler Funeral Home & Crematory Services in Lebanon and Nelson & Sons Chapel in Murfreesboro and Shelbyville. 

Reid Van Ness sent a message through Facebook to a reporter: “Be very careful what you say.”

Van Ness asked or paid businesses for permission to use their equipment and have funeral directors sign official documents, said Jerry Montgomery, funeral director for Alternative Cremation & Funeral Services in Franklin.  

Montgomery has been in business for decades and had previously allowed Van Ness to use his equipment for funerals, but the partnership quickly soured. 

“He never would do what he said he would do,” said Montgomery. “He would never pay you.”

“Since all this has come out, I doubt if any will work with him,” he said. 

Nash, the president of the state’s funeral directors association, said he was aware of the state’s investigation into bodies left by Van Ness in funeral homes last year. He said he found it upsetting to learn of new allegations.

“This isn’t normal,” he said. “This is not the way human beings should be treated, regardless of their race or nationality.”

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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.

Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.