KANSAS CITY, Missouri - Instead of a cemetery, mausoleum or urn, imagine if your loved one’s remains were sitting in the basement of an abandoned building.
That scenario has been a grim reality for the bodies of more than 150 people. The stories, backgrounds, and circumstances are different, but they all have this in common: They died in the Kansas City area and had their funeral arrangements performed at the former E.R. Morris Funeral Chapel, 4316 Troost.
Since first hearing about the problem, NBC Action News has
worked with the new owner of the building to find a solution. In
the process, the hope is reuniting families with the cremated
remains (cremains) of their loved ones.
For years, Hani Daifallah has owned a small auto lot near 43rd and Troost in Kansas City. He remembers when the E.R. Morris Funeral Chapel operated across the street for years. And he remembers when the business closed in 2008.
See the full list of remains we found in the
When the property popped up at a tax sale, Daifallah decided to purchase it, hoping he could turn the abandoned building into something new.
He opened the doors to holes in the ceiling, stacks of delivered mail on the floor, and evidence left behind from several break-ins. There were also old caskets, makeup, wigs and embalming fluid.
But none of that compared to what Daifallah found crowding the shelves in the basement.
“It’s mind boggling to tell you the truth,” he said. “People leaving the body of a loved one here in the cold basement.”
Funeral homes commonly have one or two boxes of unclaimed cremains—ashes that, for whatever reason, were never picked up by family members of the deceased. However, Daifallah discovered that his recently purchased property had been the resting place for the bodies of 155 people.
“It’s amazing. It’s really sad,” he said.
Discovering the problem
NBC Action News first saw the staggering number of unclaimed black boxes in November, when reporter Lisa Benson helped Shawn Breakfield get his mother’s ashes.
The Kansas City man had been in prison when his mother died in 2001. He showed up nine years later, only to find the funeral home had been boarded up and closed.
“This means a lot to me,” a teary-eyed Breakfield said after Daifallah let him into the building to get the cremains.
Since then, NBC Action News has tried to bring closure to more families.
Back in December, a crew spent hours in the bone-chilling basement, writing down the name on each box as electricity surged into the building from a generator in a live truck.
Using a patchwork of old cremation log books, stacks of death certificates, and online search tools, NBC Action News has searched for possible relatives. If a connection is made, the phone call comes next.
Reuniting cremains with family members
On a snowy, January day, NBC Action News delivered boxes of cremains to several families.
One was Keith Gough, an Olathe man whose mother, Kande Gough, had died back in January, 1998. Gough had kept an urn with his mother’s ashes at his house.
But then Keith received a call from NBC Action News, telling him a box had been found at the funeral home with his mother’s name on it. A call to Park Lawn Funeral Home, which contracted with E.R. Morris to provide cremations, verified that the log number on the box matched the records of Kande Gough’s cremation services.
It is likely Keith only had some of his mother’s ashes because they all did not fit in the urn. For some reason, the remaining ashes had not been given to him, instead sitting on a basement shelf for more than a decade.
“Thinking all this time I had her, you know, in the house with us,” Gough said. “And finding out that they are just sitting in a basement getting dirty and collecting dust. I would never have wished that for my mother.”
NBC Action News also stopped by the eastside Kansas City home of 91-year-old Dorothy Hurt. Her youngest son, Edward, died in 2008 of a heart attack, just before the E.R. Morris Funeral Chapel closed its doors.
“I’m glad to know where his ashes are now,” Hurt said. “I was wondering where they were going to be.”
There is sometimes confusion among family members about who is responsible for picking up cremains. For instance, one man said he thought an ex-wife was supposed to pick up his brother’s ashes.
When reached by phone, a father said picking up his son’s ashes was simply too painful of a memory.
At the Kansas City, Kan. home of Barbara Kirkendoll, NBC Action News heard how financial stress plays a part.
Kirkendoll’s mother, Shirley, died in 2007. Alone and unemployed, she did not have the money to pay for the funeral services. She said getting the ashes removed a huge burden from her shoulders.
“It’s my mother, and I sure appreciate what y’all did for me and contacted me and got her back to me,” Kirkendoll said.
Repairing a legacy
A few happy endings, but so many more mysteries unsolved.
That is why NBC Action News asked for help from Elite Funeral Chapel. The men who run the south Kansas City funeral home have a strong connection to the former E.R. Morris Funeral Chapel. Their father, Eugene, ran the family business for 12 years.
“I miss my father,” said Stefan Morris. “Seeing a lot of the stuff inside the building, the way it’s scattered everywhere… that wasn’t my father.”
When Eugene died in 2000, he left the funeral home to his wife, Ludella Morris. The sons say their stepmother cut them out of the business. When she passed away in 2008, she left everything to an executor. The funeral home quickly terminated its license and closed.
The brothers said they periodically received calls from people who were angry they could not get into the building to retrieve their loved ones’ ashes. The brothers tried to explain they had no legal authority to get into the building to help them. But they said people did not seem to understand.
After checking with attorneys and the Missouri Board of Embalmers & Funeral Directors, the brothers decided they could help. In their minds, it is a chance to make things right.
“It was the legacy of my father and I didn’t want it to be left like this,” said Stefan Morris. “We’re going to use as much energy as we can to reunite the cremains with the family.”
All the boxes have been moved to Elite Funeral Chapel, which will serve as a staging area for families.
How did it happen?
Missouri state law spells out how funeral homes are supposed to legally dispose of cremains if they remain unclaimed.
If next of kin cannot be contacted by telephone, funeral directors are required to send a certified letter to family. After 90 days, the cremains can be scattered, buried or interred in a scatter garden, pond or other place formally dedicated for such purposes.
That obviously has not happened since the funeral home closed. It apparently was not happening for years before that, either.
Travis Ford, a spokesman with the Missouri Department of Insurance, Financial Institutions and Profession Registration, said state inspectors do not perform a final walk-thru after a business terminates its license. The State also said it did not get involved in the situation at the E.R. Morris Funeral Chapel because it no longer had regulatory oversight.
Ford said in a case that the former Morris funeral home there are typically two options: either the county coroner takes control of the ashes (as authorized by state statute) or another funeral home offers to help.
“Funeral directors have rules for how to handle dead bodies,” Ford said. “But we don’t have the authority to tell them to give remains to a certain person or other entity.”
After 90 days, Elite Funeral Chapel plans to hold a mass burial for the remaining unclaimed cremains.
Family of deceased can call 816-765-0141 to make
Elite Funeral Chapel