Ashanti and Quantella Gregory wanted everything to be right for the funeral of their beloved grandmother, Barbara Ann Rue.
Instead they described a nightmare -- a botched embalming, a ruined funeral service, and many months of waiting for their grandmother's cremated remains.
D.C. has now pulled 100 sets of remains out of the Austin Royster Funeral Home. Barbara Rue’s family is just one of many who say an unlicensed funeral director there took advantage of them at a time when they were as vulnerable as they could be.
Almost from the start, they said the Austin Royster Funeral Home did nearly everything wrong.
“Our grandma was a very light-skinned woman,” said Ashanti Gregory. “When we saw her for the viewing, she was very dark. Her finger beds were black, like she was freezer burnt. There was no makeup on her. It was horrible. It was horrible.”
Rue was Muslim, and she wasn't supposed to be embalmed. But Austin Royster embalmed her anyway.
“And we were like, ‘That's not what they do in the Muslim religion. They don't embalm them,’” said Gregory
But a lawyer for the funeral home contests that. "Barbara Rue wasn't a Muslim," said Frederick Cooke, Jr. Cooke said the funeral was actually arrange not by the Gregory sisters, but by another man who was guardian of her finances.
And Cooke said the home refunded money for some of the services at the funeral that the home was unable to deliver.
D.C. Police raided the funeral home this week. The Attorney General said it was operating without a license, failing to deliver services grieving families had paid for, and failing to refund tens of thousands of dollars in life insurance payments.
The Gregorys said the place reeked.
“It was ammonia,” said Quantella Gregory, trying to describe the smell. They were “trying to cover up the death smells,” added Ashanti Gregory.
Rue was supposed to be buried in three days; instead the funeral home stalled for weeks, and months later, the Gregorys were still waiting to get her remains from the unlicensed funeral director.
"She's still down in the freezer. She's downstairs in the freezer,” the Gregorys said they were told. “And we're like, 'Freezer? A month later?’ They didn't have any empathy. Not they. Jemelle Royster did not have any empathy.”
The Attorney General just got a temporary restraining order against the home and its owner that freezes their assets and bars them from taking any more money from families. The order applies to the home and to James Agee, its Managing Funeral Director, and to Jamelle Royster Conley, its Chief Operating Officer.
Because it did not have a license to operate, the funeral home was unable to get death certificates or permission from D.C. to cremate bodies. So, many bodies and cremated remains stayed inside the home.
Those remains were just recovered this week. D.C. is still looking for next of kin for many of those people.
If you think your loved one may be among the remains recovered from Austin Royster, the D.C. Medical Examiner is urging you to give them a call.