FOX 29 Investigates: Funeral Home Dispute

- Most families dealing with a death want, more than anything, to provide a sendoff that corresponds with their beliefs.

But what happens when plans go awry?  A local mom who says her wishes were not carried out spoke to FOX 29 Investigate's Jeff Cole.

James Legrant Johnson Jr.'s lyrics expose the conflict within him. The aspiring West Philly rapper by the name "Hood" is a father of two girls.

Karen Johnson, his mother, saw the good in him, calling him "a loving, respectful young man. He helped everybody, did everything he could for people. He also loved his family."

Police say the 25-year-old was "not the intended target" of a Sept. 1, 2015 double shooting on Market Street. Cops scooped him up and whisked to a hospital, but it was too late.

Her only son's death was a crushing blow to Karen Johnson.

"Truthfully speaking, I couldn't believe it. I was like still in shock, like, not my baby. You're not taking my baby away from me," she said, tearing up.

She wasn't sure if she had the funds, but she knew she wanted a special Muslim service: "I wanted him to have a janaza," she said.

The Medical Examiner's Office said it could hold his body until she sorted things out.

A friend put her on the phone with supervisor Gregory T. Burrell of the Terry Funeral Home.

"I said that my son was Muslim, and I'm not ready to do no service yet. That's what I said to him, yes I did," she told us.

But the next day, the family learned James Junior's body had been moved to the Haverford Avenue funeral home.

And they were stunned later that day at what they say they heard from a funeral home employee and Burrell, himself.

Cole: "In keeping with his Muslim faith, you did not want him embalmed?"
Johnson: "I didn't want him to be embalmed, no I didn't."
Cole: "But the Terry Funeral Home embalmed him?"
Johnson: "They embalmed him without my permission. They did what they wanted to do to my son's body."

Burrell is a high-profile funeral director in Pennsylvania. He was once the chairman of the state's Board of Funeral Directors, which oversees the profession. A new chairman was named when it was learned Burrell had let his licenses and that of his business lapse for five days. He remains on the board.

We asked Burrell about the Johnsons' claims.

"His mother comes to us and says, 'Look, Muslim kid, don't want him embalmed,' claims you embalmed him?" Cole asked.

"Man, I don't, I don't remember," Burrell responded.

We tried to jog his memory by sending him documents that he exchanged with the Johnsons and asking more questions.

That's when we heard from Burrell's attorney, who wouldn't answer specific claims, but did write in a statement, in part, the funeral home "prides itself on delivering superior service to families dealing with the death of a loved."

How did Terry Funeral Home get the body in the first place?

The family obtained a release form from the M.E.'s Office. Only problem?

"It's not my signature," Karen Johnson said. "This is my signature," she added, pointing to another piece of paper.

"Who signed that, do you think?" Cole asked about the release form.

"The same name on top of there signed this," she said.

"You think it's the same person?" Cole asked.

"I think it's the same person, which is Gregory [Burrell]," the mother replied.

The Department of State says Pennsylvania law and regulations are "silent" on whether a funeral director can sign a customer's name.

But Philadelphia Public Health told us a release form "should be signed by the next-of-kin who agreed to the funeral home and the specific arrangements."

Burrell: "We would not pick up a body unless we have had authorization to pick it up."
Cole: "But can you sign someone else's name…"
Burrell: "Sometimes families will give…"
Cole: "…and the coroner, the coroner will accept that?"
Burrell: "Sometimes families will give us permission, yes."
Cole: "Well, no, her allegation is she didn't, she didn't give you permission…"
Burrell: "Well, I don't know…"
Cole: "…and you weren't supposed to do that."
Burrell: "I don't know, I really don't know."

And when they decided to part ways, it got messy. The family's attorney says Burrell wanted $1,700 for embalming and other services.

Family attorney Dan Hartstein said, "Then they reduced it to $1,200 when my clients said we were not going to pay. And then eventually, when my clients threatened them with law enforcement and attorneys, they released the body to the new funeral home."

Cole asked Burrell, "When she decided no… I didn't like what happened here, I want the body back, she said that you wanted $1,700 and dropped it to [$1,200]."

"I, I don't recall that either," Burrell said. "I may have to try to help them out, yes, that could be. But I don't recall that."

Karen Johnson did sign a statement of services and another form, which included references to embalming. But she claims Burrell told her it was an estimate, signatures were necessary to get the death certificate.

And she says the body was embalmed before she signed those docs.

Asked about all this, Burrell's attorney wrote the funeral home serves families "… with the utmost privacy and discretion," and they "feel it would be inappropriate and imprudent to comment … on any specific clients."

The Johnsons say they were unable to have their Muslim service, and a Salvation Army chaplain wound up presiding over a non-religious funeral for James Junior.

The family has filed a lawsuit.

"Because I couldn't do the janaza for my son, I couldn't do the stuff that I wanted to do for my baby," Karen Johnson said.

Again, why would she sign a document that referenced embalming after she believed her son had already been embalmed against her wishes? The lawsuit claims she was in no condition to make a business decision. She only wanted to see her son's body.

A trial for his accused killer has just been postponed until March.

Have a tip for the FOX 29 Investigates team? Email us at FOX29.Undercover@FOXTV.com or like Jeff Cole's Facebook page and send us a message!

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