Nelms Sued For Not Releasing Twins

July 25, 2006
Times Staff Writer

Mother says bodies of babies withheld over $800 dispute

A Huntsville woman suing a funeral home says the bodies of her twin babies were withheld from her family until she and relatives could raise $800 to pay for services that were never performed.

Huntsville lawyer John A. Brinkley, Jr. represents Shemeka S. Douglas and her family in the lawsuit against Nelms Funeral Home, owner Charles Ray and Nelms’ parent company, Northern Seven Corp. of Alabama.

Ray said none of the allegations is true.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive damages and compensatory damages.

Douglas gave birth to stillborn twins, Christian Vonzel Douglas Matthews and Christopher Vashan Douglas Matthews, in an emergency caesarian delivery July 5, 2005, at Huntsville Hospital.

Brinkley said Douglas’ mother, Brenda Crutcher, understood that the children would require embalming and cold storage to preserve them for public viewing and burial.

Nelms delivered chairs, a registry book and a wreath to Douglas’ residence at 401-A Dallas Ave., on July 7.

Crutcher told Ray on July 7 that the family wanted a public viewing of the babies in a single casket and the release of white doves during the graveside ceremony.

Ray laughed at the plan, according to the suit, saying the doves would be unnecessary and suggesting an alternative ceremony.

Without referring to a price list, Ray said his ceremony would cost $2,850, the lawsuit said.

Crutcher decided she would rather have the babies taken to Royal Funeral Home. Crutcher, the law suit, was surprised to learn that Nelms was charging $800 for services already rendered.

Nelms never provided an itemized list of services performed to justify the $800, as required by law, Brinkley said.

“We didn’t need to provide an itemized price list of our services,” said Ray, “because we had agreed to bury the children for $1000.”

The Federal Trade Commission requires funeral homes to supply customers with a general price list and prices on caskets, said Warren Higgins, executive secretary of the Alabama Board of Funeral Services. The rules are not as stringent on standard service charges such as transfer fees and charges for embalming, he said.

Brinkley said Ray required $800 before he would release the babies to Crutcher.

Ray said he tried to help the family because of financial problems. He said he offered a payment plan for a casket-vault combination and free use of the funeral home chapel.
The possibility of burial in Valley View Memorial Gardens came up, Ray said. “I said the burial at Valley View would cost them and extra $1085.”

Ray said he made it clear that Crutcher and her family would have to pay in advance for burial at Valley View and $200 for the doves. “I told them that some cemeteries might be willing to donate a gravesite for the children.”

The funeral was set for July 12 to allow Douglas to be released from the hospital, Ray said. The family had not decided whether there would be a public viewing, he said.

“That’s why we didn’t embalm them,” he said. “If there was going to be a public viewing, we had time to do it.”

Nelms fee included transportation, initial care of the bodies, refrigeration and administrative costs, Ray said.

The babies were embalmed by Royal and butterflies were released at the graveside service at Meadowlawn Gardens of Peace. Meadowlawn is owned by Barbara Jones, mother of Karen J. Smith, owner of Royal. Royal charged $1174 for the services, according to Brinkley.

No trial date has been set.

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