Ramy Jadiel Ajualip Primero, the baby in his family, died unexpectedly at just 18 months old. He was rushed to the hospital after experiencing convulsions. A grim prognosis ensued. With no hope for recovery, the boy was taken off life support 15 days later.
In shock, Ramy's parents were certain of one thing: They wanted to bury their baby in their native Guatemala, in the town they planned to return home to one day.
A Vanderbilt University Medical Center employee recommended Reid Van Ness, a funeral director and embalmer who spoke Spanish and had a reputation for reliably aiding Latino families in their time of grief — and a speciality in navigating the complex logistics of delivering bodies of the deceased from Tennessee to their native countries for burial.
Van Ness came to the boy's hospital room. He told the family he would offer his services free of charge because they had lost a child. He offered a discounted $900 coffin and he promised the baby would arrive in Guatemala 15 days later for a family burial.
Weeks passed. The toddler's body didn't arrive. The parents called Van Ness repeatedly.
When they reached him, they were told conflicting stories about the delay.
The body had been stopped in Miami due to a mix-up but was returned, Van Ness told them. He would reship the baby's body soon.
He didn't. The parents grew frantic. They approached Van Ness with an offer to pay him for his services, which included embalming, worried their discount was the cause of the delay. They asked Van Ness if he wanted them to take the boy to a different funeral home. He said there was no need.
In total, two months would pass until the parents were able to bury their child. On March 12, 2020, the body was transported on a flight to be laid to rest in Cementerio El Cacahuatal, in Cubulco, Guatemala, after the parents threatened Van Ness with a lawsuit, said Elvia, the baby's mother, speaking in Spanish from her Goodlettsville home.
"We fought a lot with him. It was terrible," she said.
The family would learn through other relatives and friends in Middle Tennessee they were not alone in their dealings with Van Ness.
History of delays
At least ten bodies Van Ness promised to send overseas for burial in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala were instead left in coolers at three Middle Tennessee funeral homes in 2019 and 2020, for periods ranging from two months to as long as 11 months, according to records obtained from the state's Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers.
Van Ness, 53, and the two funeral homes are now the subject of a federal lawsuit by the family of Freddy Aroldo Cristostomo Hernandez, a Robertson County man slain in October 2019. His body wasn't returned home to Guatemala until a lawyer intervened, six months later.
The lawsuit alleges Van Ness and the funeral homes engaged in "egregious abuses of basic human dignity and respect for the dead and their grieving family member (s)."
"The abuse of these fundamental principles of respect and dignity occurred because of a shockingly callous indifference to the rights and status of the plaintiff and his deceased son because of their race and national origin."
The lawsuit is seeking $4 million in compensation and damages.
Van Ness said Thursday in a phone interview that he had not read the lawsuit but has been cooperating with attorneys to "help them piece together the information they need."
He said he had been experiencing health problems.
"I have the beginning forms of some dementia," he said. "The funeral homes threw me under the bus. They all knew I had issues with memory. They're the licensed establishments with the licensed staff."
"For me to know I hurt someone has hurt me tremendously," he said. "It's been heartbreaking."
Cancelled funerals, distraught families
Frantic relatives and friends begged for answers. Funeral plans were cancelled. Some of the bodies began to decay and smell, according to state records. In one instance, the family of the Robertson County man killed outside of his home in October 2019 twice made the five-hour trip from their home to the Guatemala City Airport based on shipping details Van Ness provided. The body wasn't on the plane either time. Van Ness later admitted the shipping details sent to the family had been faked, state records show.
The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the transport of remains overseas since February, a result of coronavirus restrictions on both sides of the border involving deaths from the virus. Even the transports of those who have not died from coronavirus have been delayed, partly as a result of limited foreign consulate staffing to process paperwork.
But of the 10 bodies Van Ness failed to deliver for burial overseas, eight died in 2019 and early 2020 before those delays began.
Van Ness, licensed as an embalmer and a funeral director, once ran his own funeral home in the Woodbine section of Nashville, but in recent years worked as a "trade" embalmer, a type of roving contract worker that allowed him to serve immigrant families in at least half a dozen funeral homes in Shelbyville, Nashville, Lebanon and Murfreesboro.
He worked with families directly, but relied on at least two funeral homes to store bodies — Saddler Funeral Home & Crematory Services in Lebanon and Nelson & Sons Chapel in Murfreesboro and Shelbyville.
Van Ness has since surrendered his own funeral director license and embalmer license after attorneys for Hernandez, the man killed in Robertson County, contacted state officials then filed a formal complaint. A handwritten note faxed with a signed form surrendering the license on March 6 read "what all have been wanting and waiting for."
Saddler Funeral Home, inspected by state officials, entered into a $15,000 settlement with the state over the violations discovered there, including six bodies Van Ness had brought for storage at the home that remained for up to 10 months, records show.
A message left at the funeral home went unreturned, and no one answered the door when a reporter knocked on Thursday.
Nelson & Sons entered into a $14,000 settlement with state officials after inspectors found seven bodies stored by Van Ness for as many as 11 months, according to state records.
Albert Nelson, the funeral director, said Van Ness "threw himself under the bus."
Van Ness, Nelson said, came to him in 2019 saying he had had a dispute with another funeral home and asked if he could bring the bodies he had embalmed to Nelson & Sons in Shelbyville for "a day or two."
"He never came back for them," Nelson said. After state inspectors intervened, Nelson agreed to transport the seven bodies to Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and elsewhere at his own expense, he said.
Immigrant communities rely on word of mouth to find funeral officials who are familiar with the procedures required to ship a body overseas and can do it cheaply, said Francisca Castro, 47, a volunteer with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
A well-known figure
Van Ness became a well-known figure in the community, recommended by hospital staff, morgue employees and other prominent members of the Tennessee immigrant community, she said. He offered services at a discount — $4,000 to ship bodies overseas, a process than can cost upwards of $6,000.
Three years ago, a GoFundMe page set up to take donations for hospital bills Van Ness said he incurred drew a total of $5,205 in contributions from former clients who left notes of gratitude for Van Ness' services.
Acquaintances of Van Ness would later say Van Ness had claimed numerous debilitating illnesses throughout the years, creating increasing skepticism as families came forward saying they had paid Van Ness to prepare and ship the remains of loved ones, but he did not.
"I don't know if they were excuses or real," said Castro.
Veronica Salcedo, director of the Spanish-news outlet Nashville Noticias, said she has known Van Ness for six years and often recommended his services until she began hearing stories of families traveling outside the U.S. to receive the deceased only to find that the body never arrived.
"That man was very beloved in the community. The people loved him because he helped a lot of people. I really don't know what happened," said Salcedo.
One family's story
But Castro said she grew increasingly suspicious of Van Ness several years ago. She recounted this story:
A family sought her help in locating their loved one's body, saying that Van Ness had been making conflicting statements about the body's location, which they wanted sent to Mexico.
She contacted Van Ness about the situation and was told there had been issues with sending bodies on flights. He also told her the family had not paid him.
Castro then contacted the Mexican Consulate and was told there had been no reported issues with sending bodies overseas. And, she said, the family produced the receipts showing they had paid Van Ness in full.
When she confronted Van Ness by text with this information, she was bombarded with angry text replies, according to texts reviewed by the Tennessee Lookout.
When Castro confirmed the body would be shipped on schedule, because the family was making plans to fly to meet the body, Van Ness replied "all good here."
Then Van Ness gave conflicting information about when the body would arrive, texting that he "doesn't control the airlines."
"Who the hell goes to the airport to pick up cargo or a person without tracking or phoning the airline. Stupid, that is. All they had to do was look," said Van Ness after learning the family flew to Mexico to meet the body based on his assurances it would be there.
Van Ness blamed the family for miscommunication and grew angrier at Castro.
"Some of you are the most demanding, selfish and ungrateful people I have ever served. The only reason I agreed to this [funeral service] was because Cosme and Pablo asked. I think as well you are doble cara [Spanish for "two-faced"] anyway."
Castro, who lives in Jackson, Tennessee, said she grew increasingly alarmed. She drove several hours to meet the family in Nashville. She spoke to the owner of Nelson & Sons Funeral Chapel and learned that the body had never been shipped and remained housed at the funeral home.
Castro said she was told the funeral home had simply allowed Van Ness to store bodies there until families raised the funds. Otherwise, she said the director claimed, they had nothing to do with the delay.
"He presented himself as someone who aided the Hispanic community," Castro said. "From what I've seen, the funeral homes have nothing to do with this, the problem is him. I no longer aid families because of this incident."
Meanwhile, for families who waited for loved ones to be returned, the pain lingers.
The body of Bryan Ayala, a 17-year-old who tragically committed suicide by jumping into an Ohio river on May 21, 2019, was initially transported to Gardner Memorial Funeral Home, according to state records. At an unspecified point in time, the body was then transferred to Saddler Funeral Home & Crematory Services in Lebanon, where Van Ness served as a contract embalmer.
It would be another 10 months after his death before the teen's mother, Maria Ayala, received her son's ashes. Bryan Ayala was cremated on March 12, 2020.
John Morris, a Nashville criminal defense attorney who filed suit against Van Ness and the funeral homes, said he hopes other families will join in the legal action before a one-year statute of limitations is reached.