Funeral board warns consulates against unlicensed Tennessee funeral director as more bodies go missing

By: and - May 13, 2021 6:15 am
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 by John Partipilo.

Tennessee officials this week cautioned the Mexican and Guatemalan consulates in Atlanta against doing business with an ex-funeral director and embalmer who lost his licenses more than a year ago for failing to send bodies of deceased immigrants overseas for burial.

Reid Van Ness, the former embalmer and funeral director, surrendered his licenses in March 2020 after state officials found that at least ten bodies he promised to send to Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala were instead left to decay at three Middle Tennessee funeral homes for up to 11 months, the Tennessee Lookout reported in February.

A subsequent Lookout investigation found that Van Ness continued to provide his services after losing his license, including to the family of Ramon Lara Castillo. The body of the 63-year-old house painter who died of liver cancer in October is still missing. His roommates paid Van Ness $1,800 to ship the remains to Mexico last year, months after his license was revoked. A complaint about his missing body was filed with the state in April. 

Yet another body entrusted to Van Ness for embalming and transportation overseas before he lost his license is also missing, a complaint to the state just last month shows.

Last week, Tennessee officials sent a memo to the state’s funeral directors alerting them to new complaints about Van Ness “potentially conducting unlicensed activities as a funeral director or embalmer.”

And on Tuesday, the Tennessee Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers sent letters to the Consulado General de Guatemala (Guatemalan consulate) and the Consulado General de Mexico (Mexican consulate) saying it had “received information indicating that Mr. Van Ness may be the official Funeral Director liaison for Foreign Consulates.” 

“The board wants to ensure you are aware of his lack of licensure,” the letters signed by Elizabeth Bendell, the board’s associate general counsel, said.

An official from the Mexican consulate said they are aware of the ongoing situation. 

“We are being attentive in the event that a Mexican national is affected by this situation in Tennessee and requires our assistance,” an email from Adisde Yolanda Handal Gamundi, spokesperson for the Mexican consulate, said. The official did not clarify whether Van Ness served in an official capacity.

Van Ness on Tuesday denied working for the consulates unless “asked to do so.” He added that he continues to assist families with shipping remains back to countries such as Mexico and El Salvador.

He also defended himself, saying via text: “for the three or four persons that I have allegedly treated badly, I can give you 4,000 to 5,000 who were satisfied. I refuse to allow you or anyone else (to) define my caring work of over 3 decades by one vicious attack.”

Van Ness’ conduct is potentially criminal. State officials said it was up to the victims, or their attorneys, to go to police.

“Those victims are in the best position to file criminal complaints against Mr. Van Ness for the underlying issues with their deceased family members/friends,” said Kevin Walters, a spokesman for the Department of Commerce and Insurance, which regulates the funeral industry.

“We have confidence that their attorney could assist them in filing a criminal complaint if they felt it was in their best interest,” he said. “We are not aware of any reason why family members would be reluctant to contact law enforcement.”

Advocates say Latino immigrants are often reluctant to approach law enforcement even when they are victims, because of long-standing distrust or fear their immigration status could become the focus.

That has left Van Ness free to offer his services, even illegally.

Decaying bodies and re-used caskets

In fact, Van Ness failed to ship at least 10 bodies overseas for funerals in 2019 and 2020 after accepting thousands of dollars in payments, while loved ones grew frantic to find the remains of the deceased.  Instead, the bodies were found in varying degrees of decomposition in Middle Tennessee funeral homes months after they perished. 

One of those bodies belonged Freddy Aroldo Cristostomo Hernandez, a Robertson County man murdered in October 2019. His body wasn’t returned home to Guatemala until a lawyer intervened, six months later. The family has since filed a $4 million lawsuit.

In some cases, according to the Tennessee Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, Van Ness also re-used caskets, using the same interior cloth materials between bodies.

Van Ness previously blamed poor health and the funeral homes he worked with for the failures to send the bodies home. 

“I have the beginning forms of some dementia,” he told the Lookout in February. “The funeral homes threw me under the bus. They all knew I had issues with memory. They’re the licensed establishments with the licensed staff.”

Two more missing bodies

The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance received three more complaints about Van Ness’s unlicensed activities in April alleging he was paid to deliver two additional bodies overseas. The bodies are missing, the complaints say. 

The formal complaints were filed on behalf of Julio Mejia Alonzo and Ramon Lara Castillo. Castillo, the 63-year-old house painter, was the subject of a Lookout investigation in February.

The complaints were filed through the office of John Morris and Andrew Lockert, attorneys representing Alonzo and Castillo’s families. The complaints said relatives of the two deceased men have yet to receive their remains and currently have no knowledge of where they are located. 

Before he surrendered his licenses in 2020, Van Ness had been contracted to ship Alonzo’s body back to Guatemala, according to the complaint, dated April 26, 2021. Several months later, the family was shown the body in advanced stages of decomposition.

Because of the deterioration, Van Ness told the family that the body was no longer able to be shipped, the complaint said. He suggested the family cremate or bury locally, then stopped taking the family’s calls.  

Attorneys were able to contact Van Ness as part of the ongoing $4 million lawsuit against him and two of the funeral homes, Saddler Funeral Home & Crematory Services and Nelson & Sons Memorial Chapel, where he was permitted to embalm and store bodies before shipping. Van Ness acted as a contract funeral director, working out of multiple funeral homes to serve immigrant families.

In a video interview, Van Ness told an investigator working for Nashville attorney John Morris that he had ignored the family’s calls because he had lost track of where the body was located. 

‘I don’t have the nerves nor the money to travel to look for him’

Alonzo’s body had been shuffled back and forth between Gardner Memorial Funeral Home, located in Nashville, and Saddler funeral home, located in Lebanon, he said. Van Ness then stated that he made several attempts to contact the Gardner Funeral Home and now believes Alonzo’s body has been disposed of without his or the family’s permission. 

Alonzo’s body may be located in a Nashville cemetery, Van Ness told the investigator.

A death certificate included in the complaint notes that the body was sent to the Cementerio de Xeabj in the Quiche region of Guatemala. Alonso’s family said they never received it. 

Andrew Gardner, director of Gardner Memorial Funeral Home said Wednesday he had made numerous attempts to communicate with Van Ness about Alonzo’s body and sent a letter to the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance informing them about the situation.  

“Gardner Memorial Chapel did their due diligence to find the next of kin, and even spoke with Mr. Reid Van Ness,” he said.

Gardner said he informed Van Ness that the body was located at Hills of Calvary Memorial Park in Nashville.

Ramon Lara Castillo’s family also has yet to receive his remains more than five months after his death. Castillo’s roommate, Hugo Gonzales, said he last saw the body in a church believed to be the Fatherland Baptist Church in Madison, according to the complaint. He took a photograph and provided it to the attorneys but maintains that this was the last time he saw Castillo’s remains.

Gonzalez had procured Van Ness’ services on behalf of Castillo’s sister, Diana Isabel Lara Castillo. A receipt indicated that Gonzalez had paid Van Ness $1,800 to ship Castillo’s ashes back to his sister, who lives in Mexico. 

“I don’t have the nerves nor the money to travel to look for him,” Castillo’s sister, Diana Isabel Lara Castillo, tearfully told the Lookout in a telephone interview from her home in Veracruz, Mexico in February.

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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.

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.