Remains from Cantrell funeral home moved with police escort

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Unknown remains make up some of the almost 300 sets that are being transferred from Flint to Grosse Pointe Park.

Flint — It was slow and solemn work Thursday in Flint as funeral directors and staff worked for two hours to clean, catalog and transport the cremated remains of nearly 300 people.

The remains taken from a Detroit funeral home in April, which included 26 veterans and 53 people who have yet to be identified, were loaded into six caskets and transported in a caravan of hearses and police escort to Verheyden Funeral Home in Grosse Pointe Park on Thursday.

The hundreds of plastic boxes and a handful of porcelain urns had sat abandoned at the former Cantrell Funeral Home in Detroit for years and were confiscated by the state in April, when the funeral home was shut down.

On Thursday, each container was wiped of dust, cataloged and placed neatly inside the six caskets. One casket holding the remains of veterans was draped with an American flag by a member of the Selfridge Air National Guard Honor Guard.

Read:Search through the list of identified cremated remains

The months of waiting for a final resting place for the remains and the transportation process Thursday were heavy tasks, said Thomas Boaz, owner of Preferred Removal Service in Flint, which has stored the remains for the state. Each box represents someone’s mother, father, sibling or child, he said.

“However sad that they weren’t claimed from the beginning, now they’re getting some closure and will have a final disposition,” Boaz said.

State investigators discovered the remains in April after the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs launched an investigation into Cantrell on Detroit’s east side. At that time, investigators also found several bodies “awaiting final disposition” that were covered in mold.

Officials found a box of fetal remains on Aug. 29 and the remains of 11 infants on Oct. 12. It's unclear why the remains were left at the funeral home, some for as long as two decades.

Lists of the names on the remains were released earlier this in the hopes of finding their families.

The remains of 26 veterans are placed inside a coffin to be transferred from Flint to Grosse Pointe.  The remains, recovered from Cantrell Funeral Home, including at least 26 veterans and dozens of unidentified people, were transported to Verheyden Funeral Home in Grosse Pointe Park.

Those that remain unclaimed will be laid to rest in Detroit’s Mount Olivet Cemetery on All Souls' Day, Nov. 2. Veterans remains will be interred at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly on or near Veterans Day.

Brian Joseph, owner of Verheyden Funeral Home in Grosse Pointe Park, said they launched an effort to find the next of kin who may want to retrieve the remains or attend funeral services. He didn't expect the overwhelming response, he said. The funeral home has fielded hundreds of inquiries this week, he said.

“We are finding solutions and we are finding them one family at a time, one phone call at a time,” Joseph said. “We can bury our dead with dignity, respect, with reverence, and it has nothing to do with money.”

The remains of Elvis Lewis were among those immediately returned Thursday to family. The 70-year-old Detroit man was Earl Lewis’ “baby brother” and had passed away in February.

Earl Lewis said it was a relief to have him back and is considering bringing his brother, a U.S. Army veteran, to the interment ceremony at Great Lakes National Cemetery.

“I’m joyful; it’s a lift off my shoulders,” Earl Lewis said of having his brother's remains back.

When confiscated from Cantrell, some of the unidentified remains had stickers, presumably carrying identifying information, but they had been peeled off when investigators found them, Boaz said. It’s not clear why the identifying information would have been removed but it makes it impossible to identify to whom they belonged, he said.

Officials used metal detectors to locate any identifying metal tags inside the boxes but the search largely came up empty. The oldest set of identifiable remains dates back to 1998, Boaz said, but unidentified remains could be older. 

In addition to the 297 transported Thursday, at least six sets of remains have been claimed and collected by family members, Boaz said. He estimated more than a dozen families would claim their loved ones once their reached Grosse Pointe Park.

The reports out of Detroit have been concerning to funeral directors across the state, but Thursday showed the detailed care and attention of many funeral directors, said Phil Douma, executive director for the Michigan Funeral Directors Association.

“For the public to see the incredible professionalism of the funeral directors who participated in this process today demonstrates what funeral directors do every day in their communities,” Douma said.

Over the past two years, the state has cracked down on several Michigan funeral homes in Flint, Petoskey, Manistee and Mount Clemens for issues identified through inspections and audits, said Julia Dale, director for the state’s Corporations, Securities and Commercial Licensing Bureau.

The state first started working with Preferred in 2017, when it shut down Swanson Funeral Home in Flint, and Preferred helped the state remove and store the 260 cremated remains found there, Dale said.

When Cantrell was shut down in April, Preferred took over the remains there as well as 21 bodies found on the premises. The state, through donations from the funeral industry, provided caskets and burial places to help the families associated with the bodies at Cantrell, Dale said.

From April up until October, the state had been working to identify fully the cremated remains found at Cantrell and locate a funeral home willing to take responsibility for the remains, a tall order considering the space, cost and time associated with transporting, storing and interring the remains and communicating with family members.

“We don’t just allow any funeral home to step in in this capacity,” Dale said. “We are grateful to the members of the industry that have stepped forward.”

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