The determined efforts of a Buffalo woman to find the cremated remains of her father led to the discovery Saturday of more than 30 boxes of cremains – including those of her father – abandoned in a burned-out Bailey Avenue funeral home slated for demolition.
The apparent remains of Benny Goodman, a Buffalo handyman who died in July 2010, were found Saturday morning in the charred rubble of the former United Memorial & Moss Funeral Home, 3272 Bailey, which was severely damaged by fire two years ago.
Goodman’s cremains were found in a box in a storage room, along with 30 other boxes labeled with people’s names and their dates of death.
The owner of the building, who said he was not the funeral director when the fire occurred, allowed the boyfriend of Katherine Goodman White to enter the building and search for the cremated remains. The building owner, Brian Drake, said he had no idea that cremains were stored there.
When she learned that her father’s remains had been found, Ms. White screamed out in joy. She then burst into tears, saying she has been trying to track down the cremains for more than two years.
“Oh, thank God! ... Thank Jesus!” White, 53, cried out as her boyfriend, Thomas Buono, walked out of the funeral home and handed her a tattered cardboard box, which contained a plastic box holding the remains. “I can’t even tell you what we’ve been through trying to get these back.”
People associated with the former funeral home have been giving the Goodman family the runaround since January 2011, when the funeral home shut down after it was damaged by the fire, according to White and Buono.
White said she plans to ask the state Health Department to investigate the funeral home’s handling of the remains.
The search party was headed by Buono and Nick Burt, a Buffalo demolition contractor.
At Buono’s invitation, a reporter, photographer and videographer from The Buffalo News accompanied them during a search of the funeral home.
Plastic boxes containing apparent human remains were found on a shelf in a small storage room in the northern section of the building.
The apparent remains of Benny Goodman, who was 71 when he died of an illness, were found on the floor of the storage room. The plastic box was open, and a clear plastic bag, containing the remains, was found on the floor, near the box, and close to some burned papers and an old computer terminal. Goodman’s name was clearly marked on the plastic box.
Using a flashlight, Buono angrily read off the names and dates of death of dozens of people who were listed on the stacked plastic boxes. He noted that some of the deceased died as long ago as 2001.
“This is an affront to every family who had a loved one in one of these boxes,” Buono said. “These are human remains that have just been sitting in here for more than two years. Anybody could have broken in and walked away with them. What kind of way is that to treat the remains of someone who lived in this community?”
White said she is “very upset” with Drake, a Buffalo businessman whose family owns the building, and Rinaldo R. Moss, a funeral director who handled the arrangements for Benny Goodman’s funeral and arranged his cremation.
“Over the past two years, Mr. Drake told me over and over that he had no idea where my father’s remains were,” White said. “Mr. Moss, he moved down to Georgia, and I never could reach him ... I kept trying. I wanted closure. I started feeling like my father didn’t even exist anymore.”
About a week ago, an official of the Thomas P. Edwards home on Genesee Street got in touch with Moss by telephone at White’s request. The Edwards home had no involvement with the handling of the cremains.
“[Moss] told the lady at the Edwards Funeral Home that my father’s remains could be found in the storage room near the emergency exit on the Shirley Street side of the building,” White recalled. “[Moss] told her there were probably other remains in there, too.”
Buono then called Nick Burt, whose company, Burt Trucking, is preparing to demolish the funeral home.
“Mr. Burt was kind enough to say, I’ll take you in there, and we’ll search for those remains,” Buono said. “We truly appreciate it.”
A News reporter spoke to Drake on Saturday afternoon and tried to reach Moss in Georgia, without success.
Drake told The News that he is happy for White that her father’s remains have been found, but he said he takes no blame for the situation. Drake said he had no idea cremated remains were still in the funeral home.
“The Fire Department told me everything in the building was pretty much burned up,” Drake said. “This is crazy. I didn’t know they were in there.”
Although Drake’s family owns the building, Moss was running the business when Goodman’s funeral was held, Drake said. Drake said he had no contact with Goodman’s family and nothing to do with any funeral arrangements.
“But I don’t think [Moss] should be thrown under the bus, either,” Drake said. “Every family signs an affidavit, promising that they will pick up the cremains within 120 days of the date of cremation.”
If any families – including Goodman’s family – failed to pick up the remains within that time frame, they too are at fault, Drake said.
White said she tried to pick up her father’s remains after his cremation, but was told she could not do so until she paid off her bill for funeral services.
“I had the bill down to $250, but then I got very sick,” she said, “and I couldn’t pay it all off.”
She said she has repeatedly tried, through Drake, to obtain her father’s cremains since the January 2011 fire, but she said Drake kept telling her he didn’t know where they were.
Drake, though, said Moss dealt with White and her family.
Now that the cremains of the 30 or more deceased people have been found, Drake pledged to The News that they will be stored at a safe location and efforts will be made to contact the families involved.
Dale Smathers, who serves as vice president of the Greater Rochester Funeral Consumers Alliance, said the situation was “morally, ethically and possibly criminally wrong.” The not-for-profit group tries to help people who have had problems dealing with funeral homes.
Smathers, a former funeral director, said he recently began to inquire about the matter after being contacted by Benny Goodman’s granddaughter, who lives in the Rochester area.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Smathers said, when told that the cremains of more than 30 people were found in the funeral home wreckage. “In my professional opinion, the state Health Department should definitely be involved ... they should be investigating this.”
If operators of the funeral home ever withheld cremains from any family until a bill was paid off, “that is illegal” under state regulations governing funeral homes, Smathers said.
“A funeral director is not allowed to hold someone’s remains as ransom until a bill is paid,” Smathers said. “And there is no reason why a family member should have to go into a burned down funeral home to search for remains.”
Smathers added, however, that he is aware of many situations in which a family never bothers to pick up the remains of a loved one, sometimes leaving the remains with a funeral director for years, even decades.
Moss recently relinquished his New York State funeral director’s license, Smathers said.
Moss last October was “reinstated” in Georgia as a licensed funeral director, according to records posted on the Internet by the Georgia Board of Funeral Service.
A New York State Health Department spokesman said Saturday that the Goodman family will be contacted by the department’s Bureau of Funeral Directing.
After talking to the Goodman family, Health Department officials will decide whether any official action is warranted, Peter Constantakes said.
Constantakes said funeral directors are required to keep cremated remains for 120 days, but he acknowledged that the rule seems to apply to a funeral director’s obligation should no one try to claim cremains. This case is different. The Goodmans said they wanted the cremains but could not get them.
Constantakes was unable to say whether a New York State Sanitary Code rule governing the conduct of funeral directors applies in this case. The code describes as misconduct “abandoning, neglecting, abusing or failing to treat with dignity and respect, a dead human entrusted to the licensee.’’
What will White do with her father’s cremains?
She said she will have some of the remains crystallized and made into a necklace that she will wear around her neck.
She plans to buy an urn in which to store the rest of the cremains in her home.
“I don’t trust my daddy [being stored] anywhere else,” White said.