Families fighting for their loved ones' ashes

I-TEAM uncovers new cemetery nightmares

ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – For more than a month, the News4Jax I-TEAM has been looking into additional complaints into a North Florida cemetery accused of disgracing the dead. Now, three local families -- who saw the reports -- told the I-TEAM they had to fight for weeks with First Coast Funeral Home, the sister company of Beaches Memorial Park in Atlantic Beach, to get their loved ones’ ashes.

READ: Original I-TEAM report | Cemetery sued

When Karen Hawkins' health declined, as a result of COPD and heart failure, she entrusted Marie Reeder to carry out her final arrangements. The two were dear friends, having known each other for 25 years.

"I was there holding her as she took her last breath," Reeder recalled of her friend's final moments on March 12. "Karen Hawkins was the most amazing personality, she loved her home, Atlantic Beach, she was a proud Fletcher High School graduate, she had an esteemed career as a nurse anesthetist -- she called herself the Energizer bunny because she was always on the go."

Three years prior to her death, Hawkins had paid First Coast Funeral Home $2,300 for her cremation.

"She loved her two black labs very much and she had distributed their ashes and she wanted to be near them so that would have been at the [Beaches Memorial] Park, so that was her wish," Reeder said.

However, when Reeder tried to arrange the pickup of her friend's ashes, she said she had a difficult time reaching someone. She told the I-TEAM that nearly every time she called the funeral home's office, no one would answer or call her back.

"I didn't even know if they had picked up her body from the hospital," Reeder said.

On April 8, nearly a month after Hawkins passed away, because she still had not heard any news, Reeder said she filed a complaint with the Florida Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services. She hoped she could get a state investigator to get answers from the funeral home's owner, Nader Rayan, also known as John.

"I believe it was April 20 that I did receive a letter of acknowledgement that my complaint had been received and that an investigator had been assigned to my case," Reeder said.

Saying that it felt like a long time, given the situation she was in, Reeder said she was expecting immediate action from the state -- but that didn’t happen.

Eight weeks after Karen Hawkins passed away, Reeder still didn't know where her friend's remains were.

"It was just unbelievable to me, I just couldn't imagine why there would be no response in resolving this process," Reeder said.

Then, on May 9, 59 days after Karen Hawkins’s death, a state investigator called Reeder to tell her that her best friend's ashes were ready to be picked up at the cemetery.

The I-TEAM asked Reeder what she was told when she finally received Hawkins' ashes, and whether they were kind or sympathetic.

"’Have a nice day!’ That's what I heard," Reeder responded, adding she didn't feel that they cared.

Marie Reeder was not the only person to come forward to the I-TEAM with complaints of how the ashes of a loved one were handled.

"We trusted these people to do their job, to take care of my mother and ensure that everything was going to be taken care of that we paid for," Casandra Hutchens said. 

She and her stepfather, Warren Miller, are angry they too had to fight for their family member's ashes.

Their mother and wife, Donna Orner, had died from cancer on December 23. Having paid $4,345 for her cremation and interment, the family planned to memorialize her a few days after her passing.

"He told us that she would be cremated immediately," Miller said, referring to the owner of Beaches Memorial Park and First Coast Funeral Home.

But similar to the experience Marie Reeder had there, they said they could not get anyone to give the ashes to them.

"I was calling every Tuesday and Thursday and if you did get through, you get the secretary who would answer, 'He's dealing with a funeral, he really wants to talk to you, he'll call you back as soon as he's done,'" Miller said. "But they never call you back."

Beaches Memorial Park finally released Orner's ashes on January 13 -- 21 days after her passing.

Despite that, her family said they are still tormented by the experience.

"Right now, we're both wondering if she was even cremated, if we really even have her remains," Miller said.  "Because at this point, he's lied so much to us we don't know at this point whose remains we have."

Hutchens and Miller told the I-TEAM they are still fighting with the cemetery over a name plate for Orner's crypt. They paid nearly $2,000 for it, but it has still not been installed.

A third Jacksonville family also dealt with a similar situation.

Hazel Raiford died of cancer on February 22, and had also paid Beaches Memorial Park and First Coast Funeral Home ahead of time for the cremation of her remains. Her daughter told the I-TEAM she spent two weeks trying to get some answers from the cemetery, and says it was only after she hired an attorney that she was finally given her mother's ashes -- 16 days after she passed away.

The I-TEAM has made several phone calls to the owner of Beaches Memorial Park and First Coast Funeral Home for a response. None of those calls have been returned.

The I-TEAM also emailed the business’ attorney for comment, but has not yet received a response.

The state’s Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services told the I-TEAM it is still investigating why it took the funeral home eight weeks to cremate Karen Hawkins.

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