Funeral industry adapts to COVID-19
The irony’s not lost on many that one of the most essential businesses affecting the lives of people around the world is the business of death.
Tombstone buyers in grave situation with Moody Funeral Home
It’s been nearly a year-and-a-half since Edna Queen lost her son, and despite forking over $1,100 for a headstone to mark his gravesite in Fairview Memorial Gardens in Sylva, there’s nothing but a patch of grass where his body lies.
No matter how many times she called Reg Moody, Jr., the owner of Moody Funeral Home and Fairview cemetery, the answer was always the same.
“He kept telling us it would be up next month, next month, next month, and it never did come. The money is gone. It is just awful,” Queen said.
Unfortunately, Queen isn’t alone. There are more than 30 complaints against Moody Funeral Home in Sylva for failing to deliver on grave markers that were paid for but never delivered. Some have been waiting for two or three years.
“To me, that is a lot of money,” said Queen, who’s cried over her son’s missing headstone many times. “Here I am 83 years old. People like me, we just draw Social Security. We just barely exist.”
Exactly when Queen and the 30 others like her will ever get the monuments they paid for is a mystery.
Moody Funeral Home closed in December after years of being dogged in court by collectors. Moody has resigned, and the funeral home has lost its state license.
A likely course of events at this point is a court-ordered liquidation — where all cash and assets are seized and sold off in order to pay what Moody owes, an amount that could clock in at more than half a million dollars.
The biggest problem for now, however, is figuring out exactly what Moody’s assets are. It’s been an ongoing dilemma that has frustrated the court, a string of collectors, and a court-appointed accountant tasked with sorting out Moody’s finances.
The court appointed an accountant to take over the financial side of Moody’s operations two years ago, but she has been stymied by Moody’s failure to turn over business records and bank statements, despite repeated court orders that Moody open his books.
Court documents reveal a tangled web of shell corporations, sole proprietorships and intermingled personal and business bank accounts that succeeded in staying one step ahead of those to whom Moody owed money.
A constant shuffling of business assets from one entity to another has been designed to “hinder, delay and defraud creditors,” according to Shelia Gahagan, a CPA in Waynesville who was appointed to act as a receiver.
Court filings contend that assets once owned by Moody — from its building, to vehicles, to equipment, to the business operation itself — have been siphoned to other entities in hopes of making them untouchable by creditors.
Further, income received by Moody has been placed in a personal bank account kept secret from Gahagan, court filings claim.
“Mr. Moody, Jr. opened a business account in his personal name, has deposited business funds into his personal account and has retained the profits of the business,” Gahagan wrote in court filings.
Moody funneled money from the funeral home into a personal account as part of the concerted and systematic effort to shield profits from collectors he owed money to, court filings claim.
Moody Funeral Home has been the target of a civil lawsuit dating back five years by a casket company owed $176,000 for coffins it delivered but was never paid for.
Last fall, the court finally threatened to hold him in contempt if he continued to stall Gahagan’s efforts to probe the finances and assets of the business — a threat that resulted in Moody resigning and the funeral home being shut down.
Exactly where those waiting for their tombstones are in the line of people owed money by Moody isn’t clear. In addition to money owed to the casket company, Moody also owes back state and federal taxes.
Another complaint against Moody has been the upkeep of his two cemeteries, namely Fairview Memorial Gardens in Sylva and Swain Memorial Park in Bryson City. Since the funeral home shut down in December, Gahagan has tapped limited businesses funds to perform basic maintenance that had been neglected in the cemeteries.
“He has received payments for services he has failed to perform, and most of these issues have been ongoing for years,” according to court papers filed by Gahagan. “Maintenance and performing services paid for are normal operations of a business.”
The ongoing saga involving Moody Funeral Home is common knowledge in Jackson County, but people such as Queen who already purchased burial plots in Fairview Memorial were over a barrel, she said. If they tried to buy their monument from another company, or if they wanted the funeral service performed by another funeral home, Moody would charge them extra for digging the grave or setting the stone, in effect forcing them to go through his funeral home, Queen said.
Sylva funeral home directors swindled pre-payers, investigators say
A former Jackson County funeral director has been charged with fraud for swindling people who paid for their own funerals in advance.
Ronnie and Thomasine Riddle, 55 and 56, of Sylva systematically defrauded as many as three dozen funeral customers out of tens of thousands of dollars over a nine-year period, according to an ongoing investigation. The couple was running Melton-Riddle Funeral Home at the time but are no longer affiliated with the business.
The victims paid the Riddles up front to cover the cost of their funerals when they eventually died — but the money is now unaccounted for and the funeral services never provided, according to the charges.
So far, the Riddles have been charged with defrauding 13 people of $50,000.
But that’s only part of the picture.
The charges at this point represent only a portion of the funeral home’s customers whose money went missing after being paid to the Riddles, according to records on file with the N.C. Funeral Services Board.
In all, more than three dozen people have come forward saying they prepaid the Riddles — for a total of more than $150,000 that was not properly deposited into funeral accounts and is now missing, according to funeral board records.
The investigation appears to be ongoing, but it is unclear whether more charges could be forthcoming.
“The investigation into these activities is continuing and will be continuing as allegations come forward from people who may have been affected,” District Attorney Mike Bonfoey said.
Funeral homes are supposed to follow strict guidelines when people pay for a funeral ahead of time. The person who paid for their funeral upfront won’t exactly be around to make sure they get what they paid for, giving rise to clear state laws on how the money for prepaid funerals should be handled. The money must be set aside either in a designated trust fund or through an insurance policy. Either way, it essentially goes in a lockbox ensuring the money will be there to provide the services.
SEE ALSO: Tombstone buyers in grave situation with Moody Funeral Home
All the charges filed to date against the Riddles involved insurance policies — or rather the lack of insurance policies, according to warrants. The Riddles gave customers fake paperwork, leading them to believe their money had been put into an insurance policy when in fact no such policy existed, according to the charges.
“They wrote these contracts, accepted the people’s money and gave them receipts, but the money was never sent to the insurance company,” said Tom Tucker, the new owner and manager of Milton Funeral Home, who has condemned the Riddles’ actions.
The current charges are all the result of a two-year investigation by fraud officers with the N.C. Department of Insurance and deal only with cases that involved fake insurance policies.
But there are potentially another two dozen victims who prepaid for funerals whose money was supposed to be placed in a designated trust fund but now can’t be located, according to the N.C. Funeral Board. These did not fall under the purview of the N.C. Insurance Department but instead would be investigated by local law enforcement or prosecutors.
Bonfoey said he could not comment other than to say “The investigation into the entire sphere of this activity is continuing.”
Tucker said he would not be surprised if more charges came along at some point to hold the Riddles responsible for all the additional victims.
“It looks to me like there would because there is quite a number of those,” Tucker said.
The N.C. Funeral Services Board doesn’t have a law enforcement arm and can’t launch a criminal investigation of its own. It did send two letters to District Attorney Mike Bonfoey in 2009 alerting him to evidence of felony embezzlement and fraud by the Riddles. The letters offered to help in an investigation should Bonfoey chose to initiate one.
“We reported to the local district attorney as required by law when ever there is embezzlement of premium money,” Harris said.
State fund re-pays victims
In the meantime, the N.C. Funeral Services Board has forked over $60,000 to pay back victims, and more is likely coming.
“We are still dealing with potentially $100,000 or more in claims,” said Paul Harris, head of the N.C. Board of Funeral Services.
Paying for funerals in advance is fairly common. Sometimes people don’t want their funeral expense to be a burden on their family. Others are trying to spend down their assets in order to qualify for Medicaid. And some are simply hedging their bets, locking in the cost of their funeral at today’s rates.
The N.C. Funeral Services Board tries to act as a check-and-balance, ensuring that people who pay cash upfront for a funeral will actually get the service they’ve paid for when the time comes.
A record of every prepaid funeral transaction is supposed to be filed with the state funeral board, which checks to make sure the money got deposited where it was supposed to be. The Riddles did not file paperwork with the state as required, however.
Failure to file the paperwork can result in a funeral director losing the ability to sell prepaid funeral services — and that’s exactly what happened to the Riddles in 2006, although evidence suggests they continued to do so anyway.
Harris said every couple of years there seems to be a dishonest funeral director somewhere in the state who pockets people’s money.
The state has a restitution fund to pay back victims in this predicament. The pool of money comes from a $2 fee tacked on to all prepaid funeral arrangements made in the state. The fund is taking a serious beating in the Riddle case, Harris said.
Harris said victims are pleased the state has such a safeguard in place when the money they thought they put toward a funeral is stolen by a funeral director, but ideally the funeral director would be held criminally responsible and have to pay restitution if the case can be proven.
Funeral home founder devastated
The Riddles ran Melton-Funeral Home for almost a decade before losing their license from the N.C. Board of Funeral Services. The license was revoked in 2009.
The funeral home was taken over by Thomas Tucker, a longtime funeral director in the region who had been working at the funeral home part-time. Tucker dropped the Riddles’ name from the business and went back to the original name of just Melton Funeral Home.
The turn of events has been heart-wrenching for the funeral home’s original founder, Frank Melton, Tucker said.
“Oh my goodness, it has hurt him,” Tucker said.
The Riddles worked for Melton for several years before becoming partners in the business. Melton even added their name to the business making it Melton-Riddle Funeral Home.
When Melton was forced into retirement after a heart attack, the Riddles took over the business completely.
Although Melton “when all this started breaking lose,” was no longer involved in daily operations, he was devastated, Tucker said.
“It just sent him into a tailspin,” Tucker said.
More than two years later, Tucker said he is still sorting out the mess. People continue to walk through the door following the death of a loved one believing they had squared away arrangements years ago — not only putting down cold, hard cash to pay for the funeral but working out details of the service, like who the pallbearers would be, which casket they wanted and what verses they wanted spoken.
“Of course, we have no record of it,” Tucker said. “I am a lost ball in high weeds. It has been a nightmare.”
While the Riddles no longer have a role in Melton’s funeral business, Ronnie Riddle has continued to work occasionally as a gravedigger.
“But that will be no more,” Tucker said. “I’ve had people tell me they didn’t want him even at the graveyard.”
Tucker has been in the funeral business for more than 40 years, including serving as the manager of Wells Funeral Home in Waynesville.