Columbia Funeral Home Faces Disturbing Allegations
COLUMBIA, Tenn. - A Maury County funeral director and his funeral home face disturbing new allegations about how it treated the dead and the living.
Among the allegations: decaying bodies stacked up in disgusting conditions -- and families being cheated.
The owner of Williams Funeral Home in Columbia insisted that it's all lies stirred up by a competitor.
Still, the allegations come from former employees in sworn statements filed in court, as well as a complaint with the state board that regulates funeral homes.
"We are alleging that people who had bought pre-need funeral packages were cheated, that merchandise was switched," said lawyer Gary Blackburn. "And, in one particular instance, bodies that were intended for cremation were improperly stored."
Blackburn filed sworn statements from five former employees as part of an employment dispute involving his client, a former employee of Williams Funeral Home. The funeral home sued to keep the employee from working for a competitor.
Those are serious allegations that funeral home owner Alan Blevins claims are being fabricated by one of his competitors.
"This is about as low as it can go to sensationalize something that's to try to defame someone -- this is all that this is for," Blevins told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
Some of the more disturbing allegations stem from a fire that destroyed Williams Funeral Home in April 2012. Blevins re-opened inside an old house, taking in unembalmed bodies for cremation, according to the affidavit of former employee Raymond Workman.
"Blevins accepted bodies knowing that he lacked the proper refrigerated storage facilities," Workman claimed. "For a time, he stacked boxes with putrefying remains in an unrefrigerated back room."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Blackburn, "The bodies were just stacked up?"
"Stacked in boxes, six, seven of them," he said, referring to the affidavit.
"And you use the word putrefying?"
"These were unembalmed, uncremated remains. And nature took its course."
Workman's affidavit claimed that "the stench of these bodies was overpowering" -- adding that the deceased were even loaded into a van when state inspectors showed up. They were allegedly hauled to the nearby Polk Memorial Gardens and placed inside an un-air-conditioned shed.
"If that were my loved one and I heard this, I'd be pretty upset," we told Blevins.
"As you should be," the funeral home owner replied. "But you are looking at a former employee that left and working for a competitor."
Still, Blevins acknowledged there may have been bodies stored in a back room for a few hours.
"We had to store people there, but only within the laws of the state of Tennessee -- hold them eight hours and then either take them to refrigeration units or crematory," he said.
"So you could have had unrefrigerated bodies for up to eight hours?" we asked.
"Yeah, you can. That's Tennessee state law."
"So why not just put the body in a cooler?"
"We didn't have one at that facility. So we had to wait and decide if we were going to take them to embalm or are we going to take them for cremation. So sometimes it's a few hours, but it was never very long."
But the allegations extend far beyond just mistreating the dead.
In sworn statements, those former employees claimed the funeral home was also cheating the living.
Former employee Mike Andrews testified in a video deposition that Williams Funeral Home even sent him to East Tennessee to pick up what were essentially junk caskets.
"They just didn't look like something that I would want to use for my family, I'll put it that way," Andrews said.
"Was there any damage to any that you saw?" he was asked.
"Holes in them?"
And in an affidavit, former employee John Oaks said they were really "Chinese-made caskets" -- that the funeral home passed off as top-of-the-line Batesville caskets.
"The caskets had holes in them," NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Blackburn.
"Yes," he answered. "They were sent to a body shop as you would send your car."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Blevins if he ever took caskets to a body shop.
"No, I didn't take any to a body shop," he insisted.
"Did one of your employees?" we asked.
"Not to my knowledge."
Blevins added that he once bought some cheaper caskets in the Tri-Cities area to use for indigent families.
But former employee Dale Shelton -- who also now works for a competitor -- swore that other cheaper caskets were also substituted for Batesville caskets.
"They would change the lining on the inside, give it a name that was commonly used by one of the higher quality companies and sell it without the consumer's knowledge," said lawyer John Ray Clemmons, who once served on the state board that regulates funeral homes.
Clemmons just filed an official complaint with the board against Williams Funeral Home on behalf of a former employee.
"We have never given less of a casket in quality or service than we've contracted in advanced -- that's totally untrue," Blevins said.
These latest court filings stem from efforts by Blevins to keep a former employee from working for a competitor.
That former employee, who's also a minister, was recently found in contempt of court for leading a prayer at a graveside service -- which has opened up this can of worms.
As for the allegations of bodies being mishandled, the funeral home moved back into a new state-of-the-art facility back in April.
Still, if the allegations in these affidavits are true, experts say the fire would be no excuse for mishandling bodies in any way.