Tennessee officials have issued a warning to funeral businesses about working with an unlicensed, ex-funeral director after a series of scandals, including the negligent storage of bodies.
Reid Van Ness surrendered his license as a funeral director and embalmer in March 2020 after state officials found that at least 10 bodies he was paid to ship to Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras instead were left lying in two Middle Tennessee funeral homes for up to 11 months. In some instances, the bodies had decayed beyond recognition.
Tennessee Lookout first reported last month that Van Ness failed to return for months the bodies of an 18-month old infant, a 17-year-old victim of suicide and eight others.
A subsequent Lookout investigation found that Van Ness continued to offer funeral services to unsuspecting families months after his licenses were surrendered. In one instance, friends and family of a 63-year-old Nashville house painter who died from liver cancer in October told the Lookout they still don’t know where the man’s remains are being kept, five months after his death. The man’s family and friends said they paid Van Ness to deliver the body to his native country.
In response to the Lookout’s reporting, state officials sent a letter to each of the state’s funeral homes in early March stating:
“You are receiving this notice because the Board (of Tennessee Funeral Directors & Embalmers) has recently received complaints regarding Mr. Van Ness potentially conducting unlicensed activity as a funeral director or embalmer in Tennessee, and the Board wants to ensure your establishment is aware of his lack of licensure.”
“Mr. Van Ness is not authorized to conduct any work as a funeral director or embalmer in Tennessee.”
Van Ness was found to have improperly stored four bodies at Saddler Funeral Home & Crematory in Lebanon, which was fined $15,000; and seven bodies were stored at Nelson & Sons Chapel in Murfreesboro, which then received a $14,000 fine. State investigators found three of the bodies were in advanced stages of decomposition.
Currently underway is a federal lawsuit against the two funeral homes and Van Ness by the family of Fredy Aroldo Crisostomo Hernandez, who was murdered in Robertson County. A friend of the family contacted Van Ness and paid $4,000 to have Hernandez’ body shipped to his waiting family in Guatemala. Instead the deceased was kept in custody for more than six months.
A Tennessee Lookout reporter reached out to Van Ness, who did not address the state letter but instead described the actions of the funeral oversight board as discriminatory and that they were harassing funeral establishments from working with him.
“The funeral trade industry [is] not nearly the institution they aspire to be. [It] is one of the most political, competitive and greedy and backstabbing businesses that one can be in,” said Van Ness.
“While their hatred/discrimination for me continues, I still serve families everyday without charge to assure them they will not be taken advantage of,” he said, adding that a body can be prepared without a licensed establishment through a church.
According to Tennessee law, the state cannot interfere with any religious establishment preparing bodies for burial without charge.
Hispanic leaders fear similar situations could happen again.
Yuri Cunza, president of the Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said immigrants are often the targets of irresponsible business practices due to limited English-speaking skills, lack of knowledge of consumer rights; and many fear calling the police or may be threatened with the police if they seek to complain about grievances.
The Latino immigrant community often has a migratory lifestyle, according to Jose Gonzalez, co-founder of Conexión America. Many immigrants living and working in the U.S. may plan on returning to their country of origin. An unexpected death means families will seek to send the deceased back home in order to comply with religious practices or to return loved ones to hometowns they hope to eventually to go back to.
Today, immigrant organizations such as Conexión America are in a better position to warn the community that “there are unscrupulous people out there,” said Gonzalez, “but it is an uphill battle, for sure.”
Van Ness has long been an important figure in the Latino community. According to Cunza, members of the Latino community tend to trust word-of-mouth above all else, and many have recommended the services of Van Ness to their friends and family.
Irresponsible business practices often go unreported because victims believe their limited-English speaking skills prevent them from contacting authorities, said Cunza.
“We understand we are not a priority for services but vital services are needed,” said Cunza.
Randy Nash, president of Tennessee Funeral Directors Association, acknowledged that many funeral homes find it difficult to provide services to immigrant communities due to the often-complicated procedure of sending a body to another country.
The Guatemalan Embassy requires four documents to transport human remains: a death certificate, a burial transit permit, a letter of non-contagious disease and an embalmer’s affidavit. Mexico requires the same documents but translated into Spanish. Any small mistakes or miscommunication can cause further delays, said Nash.
“The process can take up to a month and funeral homes are serving several families at the same time,” said Nash.
But there are funeral homes that provide shipping services for immigrant families, although the prices may not be low considering the amount of work.
Nash cautions against trusting individuals offering lower prices, claiming services are “cheaper with them than with others.”
“More than likely it’s not timely or not good business practices,” he added.