Saddler Funeral Home in Lebanon, where Reid Van Ness stored bodies for months at a time. Photo by John Partipilo.
A second lawsuit has been filed against two Middle Tennessee funeral homes and a Tennessee funeral director who lost his licenses for failing to send bodies of deceased immigrants overseas for burial.
Filemon Dominguez Diaz died in November, 2019. After his death, an acquaintance, Domingo Carlin Sanchez, contacted Diaz’s sister, Martha Angelica Dominguez Torres, to make funeral arrangements. Because Torres lived in Guanajuato, Mexico, Sanchez entered a contract with Reid Van Ness, a licensed funeral director and traveling embalmer well-known in the Middle Tennessee immigrant community for catering to families seeking to send their deceased loved ones back to their countries of origin.
Van Ness was paid $4,724 to transport Diaz’s remains to Mexico, according to the lawsuit. Instead, Torres spent months trying to unsuccessfully contact Van Ness to have Diaz’s remains returned to her. His remains were not returned home to Mexico until nearly nine months later, after a state inspector investigated.
On Thursday, Diaz’s sister filed a lawsuit in federal court against Van Ness and two funeral homes. The lawsuit seeks $3 million for “great emotional distress and pain” to Torres and $5 million in punitive damages. The lawsuit is also seeking treble damages under the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act. The lawsuit alleges Van Ness and the two funeral homes engaged in discrimination based on race and national origin in their treatment of Latino immigrants.
Bodies Piled Up For Months
The treatment of Diaz’ body “is not unique, but a pattern with regard to the Defendants’ conduct and Defendant’s treatment with regard to other LatinX families and their loved one’s remains,” the lawsuit said.
It is the second lawsuit making similar allegations filed against Van Ness and two funeral homes, Nelson and Sons Funeral Home in Murfreesboro, and Saddler Funeral Home and Crematory in Lebanon.
An investigation by the Tennessee Lookout in February found that at least ten bodies Van Ness promised to send overseas for burial in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala were instead left in coolers at three Middle Tennessee funeral homes in 2019 and 2020, for periods ranging from two months to as long as 11 months.
Lawyers representing the family of Freddy Aroldo Cristostomo Hernandez, a Robertson County man murdered in October 2019, filed complaints against Van Ness and the two funeral homes with the Tennessee State Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers. Hernandez’ family had spent six months waiting for Van Ness to ship Cristostomo’s remains to Guatemala.
A state investigation in August 2020 found that Van Ness used three different funeral homes to store the bodies of deceased immigrants, which were then abandoned, some for up to 11 months.
State officials found at least 10 different bodies in various stages of decomposition and without proper identification tags. Van Ness also re-used caskets in some instances, including using the same interior cloth materials between bodies.
Among the deceased was Diaz, who was in an advanced state of deterioration, according to court documents.
Diaz’s remains were then shipped to Nelson and Sons Memorial Chapel before being sent to Guatemala on July 30, 2020, nearly nine months after his death.
Reached Tuesday, Van Ness declined comment. Previously, Van Ness blamed poor health for his failure to ship the bodies to their final destination.
Van Ness has since surrendered his embalming and funeral director licenses, but a subsequent investigation by the Tennessee Lookout in February found that Van Ness continued to offer funeral services in the immigrant community.
After Ramon Lara Castillo died on October 23, 2020, Castillo’s roommate paid Van Ness $1,800 for the cremation and transportation of Castillo’s remains back to Mexico. Castillo’s sister, Diana Isabel Lara Castillo, told Lookout reporters in February 2021 that she was still waiting for her brother’s remains to arrive in Mexico and had no knowledge of where his body was currently located.
“I don’t have the nerves nor the money to travel to look for him,” Castillo said at the time. A complaint was then filed on Castillo’s behalf, whose remains are still missing.
After the Lookout’s investigation, attorney John Morris and Andrew Lockert filed a complaint to the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance about Van Ness’s unlicensed activities in Castillo’s case. Morris and Lockert previously filed a complaint on behalf of Hernandez and are representing both Diaz and Hernandez in the federal case.
The department also received two other formal complaints of bodies, including Julio Mejia Alonzo, whose body was also missing.
Tennessee officials have since warned the Mexican and Guatemalan consulates in Atlanta against doing business with Van Ness.
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