Six African American funeral directors are accusing the Harrison County coroner of steering business to white-owned funeral homes. MPB’s Evelina Burnett reports:
The civil rights lawsuit against coroner Gary Hargrove, Harrison County and the board of supervisors was filed in federal court this week. It claims the coroner is discriminating against African American-owned funeral homes by calling on white-owned funeral homes for most services, like the removal of bodies from crime scenes and accidents. Eddie Hartwell, Sr., is with Hartwell's Family Funeral Home.
"We're bringing this lawsuit because for 20 years, the coroner has promised to use a fair system in the discharging of his duties, so that all of the funeral homes in this county could share equally in the burdens and the benefits of providing mortuary services to the citizens of this county. and he's broken that promise again, and again."
The lawsuit claims more than 1,200 deaths a year fall within the coroner's jurisdiction, so if the county was using a rotation system, each funeral home should have received around 150 calls. But, instead, they say, the African-American owned funeral homes have received only a handful.
Tim Holleman is Harrison County’s board attorney. He says they disagree with the claims in the lawsuit and intend to defend it vigorously.
"Ninety to 95 percent of the removals, the bodies are removed to the funeral home that the family requests," he says. "There's a very small number where there may not be family, and we'll get into those when we get into the litigation, but that's a very small number."
Holleman also says the county does not choose where bodies are autopsied; the pathologist chooses the facility in those cases.
Gretchen Helfrich of Chicago law firm Loevy & Loevy is one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the suit. She says the impact of the coroner's decision can be far-reaching because families will often return to funeral homes they know.
"If you have a loved one who is buried by a particular funeral home, it is very common for the family to return to that funeral home, and give their business to that funeral home the next time there is a need in the family," she says, "so each time that initial contact isn’t made, it’s a potential loss of generations of business."