A body-snatching Harlem funeral home seized a woman’s remains without her next of kin’s permission, then did such a poor embalming job that she required a closed-casket funeral, a new lawsuit states.
Charlene Wimbush’s next of kin claims in a suit filed last week that the owner of Owens Funeral Home, Isaiah Owens, retrieved her body from the city Medical Examiner’s Office and performed the unwanted embalming despite the next of kin not signing any paperwork.
Wimbush died at the age of 43 on Feb. 11 at Harlem Hospital of a heart attack. Her grieving next of kin contacted Owens because the funeral home had handled the burial of Wimbush’s parents in New Jersey, according to the Bronx Supreme Court suit filed by Tracy Reese and four others who say they are Wimbush’s next of kin.
But problems quickly arose.
Owens was allegedly unable to determine where Wimbush’s parents had been buried. He showed a “lack of empathy” in a meeting and “had an attitude” during a subsequent phone call, the next of kin claims.
In a brief interview, Isaiah Owens said he’d been in the business for 50 years and had a “good name.” He said he had a verbal agreement with Wimbush’s common-law husband that was complicated by an inability to find her parents’ burial plot. He called the suit “a sham.”
The family ended up choosing one of Owens Funeral Home’s competitors to handle the burial, Unity Funeral Chapel. But on Feb. 23, Owens called the family and said he’d picked up Wimbush’s remains from the city medical examiner. He allegedly said he’d embalmed Wimbush, a homemaker who lived in the Upper West Side.
“None of the next of kin authorized Owens/the Owens Funeral Home to embalm decedent’s remains,” the suit reads.
They were shocked when they saw a photo of Wimbush’s body.
“Based on how she looked, the next of kin decided they could not have an open casket funeral,” the suit states.
This isn’t the first time Owens Funeral Home allegedly seized a body without permission. The new lawsuit notes that in 2013 Owens was found liable in a different case for taking “improper possession” of a body. In that case, filed by the family of James Turner, Owens admitted that he’d conducted 400 funerals in 2011 and lacked written authorization for more than 200 of them, according to court papers.
The funeral home has also denied wrongdoing in that case. Owens said in an interview that verbal agreements are a routine part of his business.
“Owens Funeral Home’s conduct, having been previously found liable for the same thing, is inexcusable and makes them seem like body snatchers,” Eric Rothstein, an attorney for Wimbush’s next of kin, said in a statement.