Infant remains hidden at ex-Detroit funeral home stun mortuary industry

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Mortuary science experts and others who handle human remains were disturbed Sunday by the discovery last week of the bodies of 11 infants in a former funeral home on Detroit's east side, calling the find "egregious" and "unjustifiable."

MoreDetroit former funeral home owner reveals where 11 infant bodies were found

A Wayne State University mortuary science professor on Sunday said it was unusual and "disturbing that any person, let alone a funeral director, would choose to keep remains of anyone, infant or adult, in this manner."

"Funeral directors are entrusted with not only the care of the deceased but also with ensuring that dignity and respect is shown at all times, without exception," Dominick Astorino said from a National Funeral Directors Association convention in Salt Lake City.

The ceiling compartment where the remains of 11 infants were found hidden inside the former Cantrell Funeral Home.

"This mishandling of remains is not only egregious, but also goes against every moral and ethical principle that funeral directors stand for."

A local funeral director said Sunday that Cantrell Funeral Home was one of the most requested sites on the east side of Detroit to hold a funeral. Only after the son took over did business slow, he said. 

"I knew the father, and he was a man of integrity," said Pastor William C. Curtis, owner of Stinson Funeral Home and two other Detroit funeral homes. ...  That place used to get a lot of business."

Workers takedown the address numbers outside the former Cantrell Funeral Home on Mack Avenue in Detroit on Saturday.  The remains of 11 infants were found hidden in a ceiling compartment inside funeral home on Friday.

Cantrell Funeral Home most recently was operated by Raymond Cantrell II, who inherited the business in 2016 after his father died, before it was shut down in April after state inspectors found decomposing remains and "deplorable conditions." 

An anonymous letter led inspectors from the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs on Friday to the funeral home on Mack Avenue, where they found the bodies of 11 babies. 

The bodies were stashed in a closet crawlspace hidden between the first and second floor of the former funeral home. Nine bodies were in a cardboard box, and two were in a small white casket, individually wrapped, some embalmed and others mummified, said Naveed Syed, the building's new owner.

Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office spokeswoman Lisa Croff could not release the causes of death Sunday. The case, she said, remains under investigation. It was unclear if autopsies had been conducted.

"The babies are at the Medical Examiner's Office. The Medical Examiner's Office will coordinate efforts with the Detroit Police Department and the state, and other means to hopefully get them identified and families identified," said Croff. "We have very little to go on (without) cooperation from the funeral home owners."

Police would not comment Sunday on the investigation or indicate if the funeral home owner was cooperating.

Not the first bodies found in Cantrell

Inspectors for the state in April found two bodies in advanced stages of decomposition and covered with mold in the funeral home during their investigation. Another body had unknown fluids covering its face. They also found improperly stored embalmed bodies in an un-refrigerated garage. The business' embalming room was unclean and unsanitary, with peeling paint, water-stained walls and dirty floors, according to the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

The small casket where some of the remains of the 11 infants were found  hidden in a ceiling compartment were still inside the former Cantrell Funeral Home on Saturday.

Officials said the funeral home's management had failed to renew its prepaid funeral and cemetery sales registration, it hadn't deposited at least $21,000 the business received for prepaid funeral services for 13 contracts or refunded customers their money. That violation is a felony punishable by a $5,000 fine or up to five years in prison. 

Cantrell did not respond to requests for comment Sunday. 

Jameca LaJoyce Boone, the funeral home’s manager for a year before its closure, has said she was shocked to learn about the bodies.

“I didn’t know anything about that,” she said. “I really don’t know how that could even have happened. I don’t know how long that’s been going on there… it’s very unfortunate and they definitely need to find out who put them there.” 

Unclear was state the tiny bodies were in. Astorino said the decomposition process begins immediately after death, with visible signs of decay within 24 to 48 hours. Decomposition would have depended on temperature, humidity of the space where they were hidden and the cause of death, he said. It also is not known how long the bodies had been in the crawlspace.

Cantrell Funeral Home was built in 1970, according to the real estate database Costar Group Inc. Current owner Syed bought the 17,349-square-foot building at auction last month with hopes of turning it into a resource center with a wide range of services to benefit the Indian Village community through his nonprofit, Quality Behavioral Health Services, an addiction treatment center and counseling service. 

"The bodies were stashed like trash up there," Syed said as he showed a reporter around the building. "I feel bad for parents who now have to go through more trauma after they found closure. Even I'm still processing it. Seeing 11 kids, small babies, that’s traumatic for anyone no matter how strong you think you are."

Workers covering the Cantrell Funeral Home sign on Mack Avenue Saturday morning after the incident. Police were not on site and scene was not tapped off.

He said he plans to continue rehabbing the building after the Detroit Police Department Homicide and state investigation concludes.

Syed had the Cantrell Funeral Home exterior signs removed the morning following the incident. "We took the signs for the funeral home down and we're putting a sign that says Hakuna Matata (meaning no worries)," said Syed. "We want to let people know something better is coming as a healing process for the community."

Several members of the state Board of Examiners for Mortuary Science, an appointed nine-member body which reviews findings from LARA and the Attorney General's Office and recommend actions, declined Sunday to comment on the funeral home probe.

Cantrell's was one of several burial preparation or cremation sites in the United States in recent years that have been forced to close after similarly gruesome discoveries, usually only after someone has complained to local authorities. Funeral home regulations vary across the United States, with some states requiring annual inspections and several requiring no inspections at all. Michigan is among those that review funeral homes when they apply for a license or when a complaint is filed.

Last year, one of 10 bodies found in the unrefrigerated garage at Swanson Funeral Home in Flint was not embalmed and had been there about six weeks. The Michigan Attorney General's Office filed complaints against the business, but it remained open until July 2017, after inspectors again found bodies in the unrefrigerated garage.

In March 2016, a funeral director in west Michigan buried an empty urn and misled a family into thinking it contained a relative’s cremated remains, according to the Muskegon Chronicle.

Usually, funeral homes get reimbursed by state or local governments for the cost of cremation or burial of the unclaimed dead, the Associated Press reported in February.

Curtis of Stinson Funeral Home said infant burials usually are inexpensive for families, and the idea that someone would stash the bodies seemed incomprehensible. 

"It depends on the circumstances ...  burial is usually the first option, which costs no more than $250 for a baby," said Curtis. "It's not uncommon for funeral homes to donate funerals for children. I do all the time."

Curtis, who has spent 44 years in the business, said there is a problem when families don't pay for the funeral service, which could have led to the gruesome alternative.

"A lot of times the family don't pay and you have to take them to court," said Curtis. "There is no recourse, but holding a body isn't justifiable. It's not like repossessing a car, you can't give the body back."
Twitter: @SarahRahal_

Staff Writer Mike Martindale contributed.