Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
DA probes funeral home Consumers have complained that Conestoga business mishandled loved ones' ashes
BY GIL SMART, Staff Writer
The owner of Gundel Funeral Home said he's made mistakes, but that "there was nothing in the way of intentional maliciousness."
The Lancaster County District Attorney's Office may have the final say.
District Attorney Craig Stedman acknowledged Wednesday that his office has launched an investigation of the Conestoga funeral home. The probe comes on the heels of a Jan. 27 Sunday News report chronicling complaints by consumers and some suppliers about the funeral home and its owner, Benjamin M. Siar Jr.
Consumers have complained that the funeral home mishandled loved ones' ashes, failed to place obituaries that had been paid for and didn't return messages.
Some suppliers said Gundel owed them money, including a Leola burial vault firm that filed suit in the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas, alleging nonpayment of nearly $21,000.
ABC27 WHTM, a Harrisburg television station, reported Monday that at least seven families have come forward with claims of mishandled remains or mishandled money.
Kathleen K. Ryan, general counsel and chief operating officer of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, said in an email Wednesday, "I have been receiving multiple complaints" about Gundel.
She said she forwarded them to the Pennsylvania State Board of Funeral Directors -- which licenses funeral homes -- and Stedman's office.
A spokesman with the Pennsylvania Department of State, which includes the state Board of Funeral Directors, said there is no record of disciplinary action against Gundel.
Reached at his Conestoga funeral home Wednesday, Siar said he believes the media coverage is overblown.
"It's been a pretty difficult week," he said, though he said he has been gratified by an outpouring of support from longtime customers.
Siar purchased the funeral home from the Gundel family in the mid-2000s and continued to operate out of both the Conestoga location and a second site at 415 N. Duke St. in Lancaster. Carol Gundel Falk, daughter of Anna and Oscar Gundel, said last week that Siar was "evicted" from the city location in the fall.
But Siar said the building had long been a financial drain on the business, wasn't handicapped accessible and he was thinking of leaving anyway.
He said the move was tumultuous.
"It was an enormous undertaking. It had been a funeral home for 60 years and I moved everything within a matter of days," he said.
He said he suspected the move from the city location might have given the public the idea that his business was in trouble.
"There's that concern about stability," he said.
Problems, he said, "snowballed from there."
Still, he called the allegations by former customers "sickening."
"People who know me know me better than to think I'd wave the cremated remains [of a loved one] in somebody's face," he said, referring to one complaint.
"As far as everything else, I've made mistakes," he said. "But if a flower shop is upset that I owe them $800, my goodness, my reputation is worth more than that."
He also lamented the fact that news reports focused on customer complaints, rather than satisfied customers.
"That 2-year-old girl who was beaten to death (Ranasia A. R. Knight, who died Jan. 12), I did that funeral for free," Siar said. "It's disheartening to see all the negative things about me and there's no mention of that ... I bent over backwards for that child. I gave a free casket to that family.
"I'm not looking for accolades or pats on the back ... I'm not a money-mongering villain. I am desperately trying to salvage a business that I love."
Families, though, continue to fume.
John Howard's son, Jason, 18, drowned in the Susquehanna River in August. Having previously used Gundel, he called again. Jason was to be cremated, his ashes placed in one main urn and four smaller ones.
The main urn came in and some of Jason's ashes were placed in it, Howard said, but the four smaller urns were on backorder. When they finally arrived and were delivered to the family, they were empty, Howard said.
Howard said he shudders at the thought, but wonders if the ashes subsequently placed in the urns are those of his son.
"I am considering pursuing something" against Gundel, he said.
Another Lancaster County family profiled both by the Sunday News and ABC27 WHTM said Gundel lost their son's ashes for a period of three weeks.
While Stedman declined to comment on the investigation, saying it's too early, he said, "It is a crime to treat a corpse in a way which would outrage ordinary family sensibilities."