Cremated veterans remains found at Cantrell laid to rest

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Holly — When U.S. Army veteran Marshall Johnson died of lung cancer on Aug. 18, 2016, a service was held at Cantrell Funeral Home in Detroit, and his sister Donna Martin said the 71-year-old's cremains were to be interred in Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly.

Instead, Martin said she found only recently through media reports that her brother's ashes were still at Cantrell, along with those of more than 200 others.

"We didn't know what was going on," Martin said through tears Monday during a burial service for Johnson and 17 of his fellow veterans.

Honor guards carry the cremated remains of veterans found at Cantrell Funeral Home in Detroit during a full military ceremony at the Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly on Monday.  About 20 Patriot Guard Riders lined the walk with flags for the ceremony.

"We paid for the funeral, and we thought he was going to be cremated, only to find out they were sitting in the funeral home for two years," Martin said. "You just don't do people like that."

Dozens of people huddled in the chill during the Veterans' Day ceremony, which was held at Great Lakes cemetery near scenic Lake Fagan. As the names of the deceased veterans were called out, geese honked in the background.

The question of why the veterans' remains were held in Cantrell Funeral Home — some as long as two decades — is being investigated by Detroit police and state officials, who also are probing alleged wrongdoing at Perry Funeral Home. 

There have been allegations of mishanded bodies and fraud at both funeral homes. A task force made of up local, state and federal authorities was formed last month to handle the investigations. Gov. Rick Snyder also put together a team to investigate funeral homes statewide.

Perry's attorney has insisted his client didn't break any laws, while Raymond Cantrell II, the most recent owner of Cantrell Funeral Home, has not returned phone calls seeking comment.

A lone pink carnation rests atop a headstone Monday at the Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly.

In April, inspectors with the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs found 269 containers of cremated remains in Cantrell. Investigators also discovered two embalmed bodies in caskets in Cantrell's unrefrigerated garage. A third body also was found, held by Cantrell from January to April, and "more than 20 bodies awaiting final disposition" that were covered in mold, LARA said.

In August, after receiving a telephone tip, state officials found a box of fetal remains. An anonymous letter sent Oct. 12 led inspectors to the remains of 10 fetuses and an infant's body.

Verheyden Funeral Home owner Brian Joseph, who volunteered to dispose of the Cantrell remains pro bono, said there still are "about five" cremated remains he's still trying to connect with family members. There also were 53 unidentified remains that were buried Nov. 2 in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Detroit, along with more than 300 others.

"We consider it an honor to be able to right a terrible wrong," said Spencer Skorupski, owner of Skorupski Funeral Home in Bay City, who drove a hearse with the remains of Army veteran James Thedford. "These are people who served honorably, but were dishonorably treated after death."

Honor guards from the U.S. Air Force carry the cremated remains of veterans found at Cantrell Funeral home during a full military ceremony at the Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly, Monday.

Monday's proceedings started at Verheyden Funeral Home's Grosse Pointe Park facility. Eighteen hearses from funeral homes across Michigan transported the remains 66 miles north to the military cemetery in Holly. The procession was accompanied by four Michigan State Police vehicles. 

Each hearse pulled up to the cemetery's assembly area, and the square gold-colored urns were carried by one service member, with another toting a folded American flag. They were flanked by volunteers from the Michigan Patriot Guard, a motorcycle club made up of veterans, who held American flags and saluted as each set of remains passed.

The hour-and-a-half ceremony began with taps played, followed by a three-volley salute. Then, the name of each veteran was called out before a U.S. Army staff sergeant presented a folded flag to representatives of the veterans, mostly funeral directors.

When presenting each flag, the sergeant said, "on behalf of the President of the United States, the U.S. Army and a grateful nation, please accept this flag in honor of this veteran's honorable and faithful service."

Martin was the only relative to receive a flag.

"I was fine on the way up here, but when I saw all the people here who didn't even know him, I started crying," Martin said. "It was beautiful."

Martin of Detroit said her brother joined the Army in 1964 or 1965 and served for two years as a paratrooper. "They said he was in Vietnam, although I never knew that until I recently got some papers saying he served over there," she said. "He didn't talk much about his time in the Army."

After his discharge, Martin said Johnson served as a Detroit police officer for a while, before working for an unspecified railroad line.

Howard Tibbits of the Patriot Guard Riders takes a private moment during the military ceremony at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly Monday.

"We were close," Martin said of her brother. "I went over this house all the time. His wife is in Alabama and she couldn't make it up here for this, so I came for her."

Martin said when she found out her brother's remains hadn't been sent to Great Lakes cemetery as planned, "I was in shock. It was horrible."

After the media posted the veterans' names with instructions for family members to call Verheyden for more information, Martin said she phoned the funeral home.

"They said they still had his ashes," she said. "I don't even have words; it's awful to put anyone through what we've been put through.

"He's probably laughing," Martin said of her brother. "At least he's in a resting place."
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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN