DALLAS — The Texas Funeral Service Commission says it has opened an investigation into allegations of the mishandling of corpses at one of the most high-profile mortuaries in the state.
Golden Gate Funeral Home in Dallas is accused of a range of misdeeds, from not embalming or refrigerating bodies in a timely fashion to wrongful cremation, to packing corpses into trucks and storerooms in unclean conditions. While Golden Gate operators deny the allegations, one industry advocate calls them the most complained about mortuary in North Texas…starting with the Palmer family of Dallas.
“We loved her and now we don’t have nothing to keep,” said Annetra Palmer of Dallas. “We don’t have nothing.”
Palmer and her three siblings still grieve the loss of their mother, Virginia Rankin, who died just over a year ago. But their grief is accompanied by anger they feel every time they see the crude, black box of cremated remains that bears their mother’s name.
But the ashes inside, they say, could be anyone’s. They say the mortuary that handled their mother’s body in January 2020, Golden Gate Funeral Home in Dallas, lied and tried to cover up a cremation that they had wanted to witness.
“Just to keep having to re-live this is unbelievable; it’s like it just happened yesterday,” said Melody Palmer Anderson.
For her sister Conora, the oldest sibling, the pain seems worse.
“I have no closure. We have no ashes. We have no grave site. We have nothing,” she said, rocking in her sister Melody’s arms. “This is not how it’s supposed to go. This is not how it’s supposed to be.”
The Palmer family is suing the popular Golden Gate Funeral home and its high-profile owner, John Beckwith Jr. They are alleging not only that their mother was cremated without their knowledge, but that they were not told it had happened for more than a month before being given a cardboard box containing what they’ve been told are their mother’s ashes.
“There’s no telling how many families have had their loved ones just completely mishandled, given the wrong remains,” said Ryan Sellers, the family’s attorney. “We have come to the point in our case where we become unlikely to ever tell if these are the right remains or not and the documentation shows that more than likely it’s not.”
According to the Funeral Service Commission, which licenses and inspects funeral homes in Texas, there are six active complaints against Golden Gate’s two facilities. One of them is linked to photographs, allegedly taken in the past few months at the Golden Gate Funeral Home in southern Dallas along I-35. The most disturbing photo is part of a whistleblower complaint recently filed by former employee Isaiah Darris. The photo depicts what Darris says are rotting corpses, stacked in an un-refrigerated rental truck parked at Golden Gate this past summer during a period of high volume for all funeral homes during the pandemic.
“The looks of that U-Haul trailer, that could be your mother or my mother, my father, my grandmother, especially the body that was face down with no clothes on. That’s very inappropriate,” said Darris.
Darris supplied us with other photos he says he took of conditions inside the funeral home in an overcrowded room and wherever else bodies could be kept - some embalmed others left exposed, on stretchers and on cots on the floor.
Another former employee, Chantel Major, told us she witnessed the bodies being stacked in the rental truck last summer.
“There’s no room in the freezer so they are just stored. There are bodies everywhere, they are just stored like that,” said Major, who says she was fired recently for speaking out about sub-standard conditions.
Major described conditions at the funeral home as a scene out of a horror film. “Bodies are everywhere, stored places they shouldn’t,” said Major. "[If state inspectors came in] they will smell decomposing bodies. They will find feces and all type of human decomposition matter that no one, even us that work in the morgue should be subjected to.”
Beckwith declined an on-camera interview but told us by phone, “I’ve never used a U-Haul for storage. I’m telling you that didn’t happen here. That was staged by Isaiah himself or whoever took the picture.”
As for the other photographs shown to Spectrum News 1, Beckwith told us, “Looks like he [Darris] kind of staged some things and took a sheet off somebody’s head. I don’t have a problem with that photo. I do have a problem with a person who would expose a deceased person like that.”
Beckwith says Darris was fired in February but did not say why. Darris claims he left Golden Gate on his own.
Darris filed an official complaint with Texas Funeral Service Commission on March 8. Commission officials provided Spectrum News 1 with a 13-page list of complaints against Golden Gate’s two Texas facilities (Dallas, Fort Worth). Commission officials say there are six open and active complaints against Golden Gate Funeral Home on file. Executive Director Glenn Bower tells Spectrum News 1 that each complaint is evaluated for merit. Once that takes place and an investigator is assigned, the agency has 15 days to send letters of notification to both the complainant and the licensee under review.
Isaiah Darris, who filed his complaint nearly one month ago, says he has yet to be contacted by the state agency.
Jim Bates of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Texas has been in the mortuary business for 30 years. He says he’s aware of Golden Gate’s past performance.
“Over the years they have been the most consistent funeral home I know of in Texas that has been complained about,” said Bates.
He says his organization has received four complaints against Golden Gate since September. We shared with him the photos given to us of conditions inside the funeral home and the bodies stacked inside of a rental truck parked at the back of the Golden Gate facility on I-35 in Dallas. He said the one visible corpse not covered by a sheet appeared to be in an unacceptable state of decay.
“But mostly it is just terrible looking because it’s not covered up,” said Bates. “But it’s stiff, it’s stiff, and it’s turning colors. State law says that body has got to be refrigerated in 24 hours or it’s got to be embalmed.” Bates says he could not be certain about the condition of the corpses under sheets. Still others, he opined, appeared to be embalmed.
We also showed the photos to both the Palmer family attorneys who say, if they are authentic, it could help explain the unauthorized cremation of Virginia Rankin last year.
“This is pretty bad, said Ryan Sellers. “Wow.”
Attorney Jack Hales Jr. summed-up what he saw in the photographs. “What we are seeing here is not carelessness but gross disregard for the value of life,” said Hales.
The Palmer family believes taking on more business than they can handle is the result of greed and disservice to the community.
“People all throughout Dallas County, they trust and believe in Golden Gate, and it’s not just this family,” said Michael Anderson, the husband of Melody Palmer Anderson.
“We don’t know how many families they have done this to,” said Annetra. “We loved our mama so much that we had to do something. We have to speak out.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified Melody Palmer Anderson and Ryan Sellers. The errors have been corrected. (April 8, 2021)