MILWAUKEE — It's hard enough when someone you love passes away, but what happens after death — at the funeral home— can sometimes make it even harder.
FOX6 has found most complaints about funeral homes in Wisconsin are not investigated. When funeral homes make mistakes, there is very little accountability.
Her mother, Lillie Williams, loved to take selfies. She was approaching her 97th birthday when she passed away after battling dementia.
"She didn't want a service. She just wanted a straight burial," Williams said.
Her mother also wanted to be buried in her favorite outfit. But the funeral home refused, telling the family unless they paid for embalming -- which is not a requirement under Wisconsin state law -- they would not touch or dress the body.
"My mother was 96 years old. She didn't deserve that. She deserved to be put away the way she wanted to be put away -- and they took that away from us," Williams said. "Her last wishes, she didn't get them."
A FOX6 review of state records shows that's just one example of what Wisconsin families say they are dealing with at local funeral homes. Dozens of families have complained. Grievances range from burying the wrong body, to losing remains, re-using caskets, and cremating bodies without permission.
Dozens of funeral homes all across the state have been accused of wrongdoing — with very few consequences.
Lillie Williams' family hired Northwest Funeral Chapel in Milwaukee to care for their mother. The funeral director, J.C. Frazier, told FOX6 it was true that his staff refused to bury Williams in the outfit the family chose. He said he was concerned about the health of his staff because she wasn't embalmed, even though experts tell us that shouldn't have been a concern. He did not answer FOX6's other questions, but sent us this statement.
Over the last five years, multiple complaints have been filed against Northwest Funeral Chapel. Families say they expected "better customer service at McDonald's."
But Northwest Funeral Chapel has not been disciplined.
Paula House's 18-year-old son, Claude Grimes, was murdered this summer. The bill for his funeral was $1,220. House said the funeral home was sweltering, it smelled bad, and she didn't even recognize her own son.
"I had already felt like it was going to be a flop, that we made a big mistake, but it was too late," she said.
House said her son's body was leaking fluids and was swollen, as if it had been inflated.
"Shouldn't nobody child be seen like that," she said. "It was so unprofessional."
Doris Ingram's 25-year-old son, Deangelo Maxwell, died in a motorcycle accident earlier this year. Guests at his funeral got sick, his mother says, because the smell of rotting flesh filled the air.
"Why do my son have this odor, and why is he drooling at the mouth?" his mother said. "It shouldn't have been this way."
Over the last five years, more than 150 families have complained about the service they received at Wisconsin funeral homes. Funeral directors have been accused of being drunk, smoking marijuana while handling bodies, putting the wrong person in the casket, and even dealing heroin out of a funeral home.
Financial complaints are also common. Families say they were "preyed upon."
The FOX6 Investigators' research shows these cases are rarely investigated. Even more rare is actual discipline. Over the last three years, half of all complaints filed were closed without any investigation — only 12 percent resulted in an order of discipline. In this case, an investigation was never even opened.
Jeff Kleczka grew up in the funeral home he now runs on Milwaukee's south side, Prasser-Kleczka.
"When I hear things like that, it disappoints me, but it also disgusts me," he said.
As president of the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association he says there needs to be more oversight of funeral homes throughout the state — and surprise inspections.
"Knowing on any given day someone from the state can walk into your funeral home and ask for an inspection," he said.
Kleczka said his funeral home hasn't been inspected in decades. In Wisconsin, funeral homes are only inspected once when they are initially opened, and occasionally during an investigation.
Wisconsin funeral homes are regulated by the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services. The Funeral Directors Examining Board is supposed to investigate complaints. A FOX6 review of records shows sometimes even when the complaint is shocking — like when a family says the wrong body was buried — the state doesn't open a case.
For example, in 2012, the Board received this letter expressing concern that a former priest, Jerome Wager, who had sexually abused at least one child, was working at a funeral home. While he can no longer be a priest, he can be a funeral director. If you look up his license, you'd never know about his past.
The funeral home that employs him, Zacherl Funeral Home, said Wagner "has been a good and faithful employee for over 12 years," despite his past.
In fact, you can do some pretty egregious things and still run a funeral home in Wisconsin.
Jimmy Davis Jr. owns JD Davis Funeral Home where Deangelo Maxwell and Claude Grimes were cared for earlier this year. In 2011, Davis was caring for a sick, elderly woman at her home. He took money out of her bank account and was convicted of theft.
In Wisconsin, even convicted criminals are allowed to operate funeral homes.
"Under Wisconsin law, people with criminal convictions can own and operate a funeral home. The department thoroughly reviews all applications for licensure and a criminal conviction that is substantially related to the profession may be considered, as the public’s protection is our utmost concern," says Alicia Bork, public information officer for the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services.
Anne Plichta, a lawyer representing Davis, sent FOX6 News this letter after we asked her about his criminal record and the most recent complaints against his funeral home. Davis blames one of the families for not contacting the funeral home sooner after death, saying the decomposition process had already begun by the time the body was received and there was little he could do.
The letter says the funeral home "treats all loved ones entrusted to its care and their families with the utmost skill, respect and dignity." Davis told FOX6 he was "working on getting everyone their money back."
Kleczka said the state needs more oversight to ward off bad actors who might be using their role as a funeral director to take advantage.
"Unfortunately today, the only current monitoring that we have of funeral homes in the state of Wisconsin is employees and competitors. That's really the only monitoring system that we have," he said.
Thomas Bradley chairs the Funeral Directors Examining Board. He declined FOX6's request for an interview. We asked to attend a recent public Board meeting. But instead of meeting in person, the Board met by phone.
During that call, FOX6 Investigator Meghan Dwyer was not given an opportunity to ask questions because "it was not on the agenda," even though she had previously requested to be on the call.
After the meeting, Dwyer spoke with Alicia Bork, a spokesperson for Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services."Is the funeral board supposed to be accountable to the public?" Dwyer asked Bork.
"That's something I'll have to get back to you on in writing," Bork responded.
Bork told FOX6 in an email that the public's safety is the department's "utmost concern." Families, though, say they find that hard to believe given what they've been through.
"I feel like I didn't bury my son," House said.
They want a system that prevents these things from happening in the first place.
"It's too late to fix it," Ingram said.
"They took that away from us," Williams said.
All of the families we interviewed say they plan to file a complaint with the Department of Safety and Professional Services. Currently, there are 23 cases of misconduct or rule violations pending before the Funeral Directors Examining Board.
The state won't tell us the status of those investigations while they are ongoing. Six funeral homes have been inspected this year due to complaints, but the state won't tell us which ones.
If you are considering hiring a certain funeral home, and want to know if there have been complaints against it recently, please contact the FOX6 Investigators by clicking here. You can also check to see if the funeral director is a member of the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, there are certain things to consider when looking for qualified funeral home:
- Ask for a price list. Laws require funeral homes to provide a written list explaining prices and services
- Resist pressure to buy goods and services you don't really want or need.
- Avoid emotional overspending. It is not necessary to have the fanciest casket or the most elaborate funeral to honor your loved one.
- Apply the same smart shopping techniques you use for other major purchases. You can cut costs by limiting the viewing to one day or one hour before the funeral, and by dressing your loved one in a favorite outfit instead of costly burial clothing.
- Shop around in advance. Compare prices from at least two funeral homes. Remember that you can supply your own casket or urn.
(Editorial note: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly reported the amount billed to Paula House, and said the theft of funds from the elderly woman's bank account involved a stolen credit card.)