Community tries to heal after Cantrell Funeral Home discovery

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Brandon Rydzon, left, and Jonathon Woods-Cronk, right, pray with others at the former Cantrell Funeral Home chapel after remains uncovered.

Detroit —  The  gospel song "Break Every Chain"  could be heard along Mack Avenue on Saturday on the approach to the former Cantrell Funeral Home, where the community gathered to begin healing after an investigation revealed nearly 300 remains were abandoned inside the facility. 

More than 100 people gathered in the chapel of the former funeral home for an interfaith prayer service to repair the East Village neighborhood. 

The prayer service was held two weeks after 11 infant remains, 10 being fetuses, were discovered on Oct. 12 hidden in the ceiling at the former funeral home, at 10400 Mack Avenue. An anonymous letter to Michigan's Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs instructed authorities where to find the remains. 

More: Detroit former funeral home owner reveals where 11 infant bodies were found

More:Remains from Cantrell funeral home moved with police escort

More:Relatives sought for remains found at Cantrell Funeral Home

"It's horrifying," said Sandra Willis, from Detroit. "There's nothing else to describe it. This funeral home served the community, this poor community with nothing left to lose other than our family."

The prayer service was hosted by Naveed Syed, who purchased the building in September with plans to repurpose it as a community center part of his nonprofit Quality Behavioral Health Services, an addiction treatment center and counseling services.

"With events like this we hope to turn the tragedy into triumph," Sayed said. "To do everything we want to help the community, we must first start this healing processes. We don't want this tragedy to stick with the building."

More than 100 people gathered at the interfaith prayer Saturday in the former chapel of Cantrell Funeral Home on Detroit's east side.

The Oct. 12 discovery by LARA wasn't the first visit by state inspectors. Previous inspections found a baby, who died in 1997, had remained unclaimed by the family with a balance due. The funeral home would not bury the baby, the state said. 

The state's investigation began in April, after investigators found two embalmed bodies, left in caskets in the garage since the end of 2017. A third body was held by Cantrell from January to April while families paid for the services. That same inspection also revealed "more than 20 bodies awaiting final disposition," including two that were covered in mold, according to LARA's timeline of events. 

Also found in the 17,349-square-foot building were 269 containers of cremated remains. Of the containers, 52 of them are unidentifiable and 26 of them are known veterans.

LARA investigators returned on Aug. 29, where they also uncovered fetal remains in the basement.

Sayed said LARA's investigation has prolonged construction on the building but says they will work to "mend what's broken."

"This neighborhood has lots of problems from health issues, substance abuse, childcare issues and we want to help fix those," said Syed. "We want to provide shower services for homeless people, giving them clothing, legal aid services, health care, substance abuse services, and a lounge so if they don't have any place to go, they don't linger outside liquor stores. Hopefully, soon we'll be able to offer GED classes.

"That's the goal to revitalize the community and empower them as well."

Metro Detroit religious leaders spoke at the event including Pastor Pamela Morgan, the Rev. Christopher Holly, Evangelist Evelyn Blackshear, Imam Abdullah Al Amin, Father Norman Thomas, the Rev. Edward Knox, Minister Fuqua Bey, Pastor Kim Smith and the Rev. Sandy Arnold. 

Alberta Tinsley-Talabi, a former state representative and founder of Mack Alive, served as mistress of ceremony and spoke about "death shaming the poor."

"It's beyond the blameworthiness of funeral homes. We must also understand the role that poverty plays in Detroit, where infant mortality has approached that of Third World countries," she said. "The poor can not afford to bury their dead... there is no safety net to bury the poor. No surprises, just mind-boggling that there's so much evidence of this American sham of death shaming," she said. "We can and we must do better and this place will serve as part of that healing."

Music and prayer led Brandon Rydzon to tears among others trying to comprehend why those found in the funeral home were never laid to rest. 

"Despite what happened, prayer is very powerful... it helped me recover and it can help this place too," said Rydzon, a recovering addict and frequent member of QBH Services. "This place will turn into something great and help people like me."