After Carlotta Campbell died of head and neck cancer on November 27, 2009 (the day that she and her husband, Mike, would have celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary), Mike and the couple's daughter, Olivia Booher, met with Ronald Marts, proprietor of Marts Memorial Services, a storefront funeral home in Westport. They arranged for Carlotta's remains to be cremated.
The family, which isn't religious, wanted only the kind of simple cremation that Marts specializes in. According to Missouri Division of Professional Registration records, he has been a licensed funeral director since 1976. What Campbell and Booher requested, Marts had done thousands of times. Campbell selected an urn and paid Marts for the cremation.
The family held a service at Unity Temple on the Plaza November 30, three blocks from the Starbucks where Carlotta had worked as a barista. Campbell likes to tell people that his late wife befriended everybody, from the shoeshines next door to the president of Country Club Bank. The family didn't have the ashes that day, but Booher says that was fine — they didn't need the remains to mourn. Marts told the family that Carlotta's ashes would be ready for pickup on December 1, Campbell says. Then Marts told the family that the ashes would be available on December 2. Then December 3. Finally, after complaining to Marts about the delay, Campbell picked up a box on December 4.
For more than a year, these remains sat in Campbell's living room, tucked snugly into one of Carlotta's favorite pieces of pottery, a round navy-blue jar with a soaring bat, wings spread, molded into the side.
But now the ashes no longer reside in the pottery, and Campbell doesn't know what to do with them. He says (and cremation documents support) that Marts gave him a stranger's remains.
Booher, a social worker, says she learned through her job about Marts and his reputation for simple cremation. "I hadn't heard anything about anyone complaining," she says. "I had no reason to suspect that he wasn't on the up and up."
And for almost three and a half decades, Marts appears to have done nothing to cause concern. The business he started in 2002 built a reputation for catering to Kansas City's poorest citizens by promising dignified, bargain-priced cremations and funerals.
Starting in May 2009, however, the Missouri Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors made a string of disturbing discoveries during inspections of Marts Memorial Services. Board reports say Marts' professional sins ranged from shoddy administrative practices, including not keeping a log of the bodies that went in and out of his business, to grisly storage problems.
But rather than correct his violations, board inspectors say, he cut more corners. In December 2010, the board revoked Marts' license and told him to cease doing business by the end of the year.
Some passages from the disciplinary order portray a badly mismanaged business. "On May 18, 2010," one section begins, "there were four dead human bodies in the refrigerated room at Marts Memorial, and the room's temperature was 50 degrees, according to Marts' thermostat in the room. The cooler room lacked the capacity to reach the required temperature of 40 degrees."
In the spring of 2010, the order states, Marts was found not to be keeping a log of the bodies in his possession, and he failed to provide clients with written statements of goods and services. The order also says Marts kept a body in his funeral home without refrigerating, embalming or placing it in a hermetically sealed casket within 24 hours of death. These violations were confined to Marts' work space, hidden away from his mourning customers. In August 2010, however, Marts gave another grieving man the ashes of a stranger, passing them off as the remains of the man's wife.
Retired Kansas City police officer Hadley Cutburth claims that after his wife, Soledad, died on July 23, 2010, he paid Marts $803 to cremate the remains and put them in an urn he had picked out. On July 27, Marts brought an urn full of ashes to Soledad's funeral mass and said the remains were hers. But Cutburth says he was given someone else's ashes.
According to a transcript of a December 7, 2010, board hearing, Cutburth called Marts weeks after the funeral to see if the death certificate was available, and a woman answered and gave him some surprising news.
"I have your wife's death certificate and her box of ashes on my desk in front of me," he says she told him. "So all kinds of things was racing through my mind," Cutburth told the board. "I thought, 'Well, if she has her ashes on the desk in front of her, then who's in the urn on the end table?'"
He went to Marts Memorial Services to figure out what happened. The scene he described in his testimony sounds nearly farcical.
"And [Marts] met me at the office door and tried to keep me from going in. And he says, 'Come on out here,' he says, 'Let me get them in an envelope for you, and you can have them.' And I said, 'No, I want to see the box.' And he said, 'What box?' And I said, 'The box with my wife's ashes in it.' And so I just pushed him out of the way and I went on in," he told the board.
"And there was his wife [Kathy Marts] standing in the far corner of the office with a box, and she's busy with her fingernail trying to scratch a label off the top of it. So I went straight to her and I could see my wife's name on it, and I said, 'Don't touch that anymore,' you know. And I got it and I set it over on the desk next to me, and Mr. Marts was sitting there. And then he gets it and he tries to start working on it. And I said, 'Don't you touch that' again, and I actually had to threaten him with body harm ... while I was calling 911 and getting them on the phone, you know. Finally he left it alone," he testified.
Rather than simply admitting he had given Cutburth the wrong ashes, Marts made a miscalculation that has further tarnished his reputation and exposed misdeeds that the board hadn't discovered yet.
Trying to explain how Soledad Cutburth's ashes could be in an urn as well as in the funeral home, Marts told Cutburth that his wife's ashes filled two cardboard boxes and he had brought only one to the funeral mass. The problem with that version of events is that Marts needed the crematorium he subcontracts with to corroborate the two-box story.
Stonegate Crematorium in Harrisonville is where 1,000 bodies are taken each year for cremation. Owner Danny Carmichael's pride in his modern facility is obvious as he gives a tour and explains his procedures. He points to the digital thermometer outside the body-refrigeration room, which declares the temperature to be a chilly and legal 34 degrees. And he shows off his two retorts — the appliances used for cremating bodies — including the only one in the Kansas City area suitable for cremating bodies that weigh 500 pounds. He admits, with a self-conscious smile, that Kansas City's obesity problem has been good for business.
Carmichael isn't accustomed to being the face of his industry. That role is usually left to funeral directors, who work directly with the public. But after Marts asked him to back up his explanation of the Cutburth snafu, Carmichael instead supported the family's claim. Then he uncovered more people who may have been deceived.
Sitting at his desk in his tidy office, manila client files displayed in neat rows, he explains how his meticulous record-keeping and his insistence on keeping bodies identified have uncovered Marts' improper distribution of remains. The key is the fastidious way in which Carmichael and his staff go about tracking and cremating bodies.
Staff members place bodies into cardboard coffins on which the decedent's name has been clearly printed. The cremator turns the natural-gas-fueled retort up to a temperature hotter than 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Each coffin is placed on a motorized stand and rolled into the retort, which burns bodies at the rate of one hour per 100 pounds. Afterward, the ashes are swept out of the retort with wire brooms and put into a processor, which breaks down bone fragments. The ashes are then poured into plastic bags, which are cinched shut with a cable tie. A small metal disc with a serial number is affixed to the bag before the cremated remains are placed inside a box, onto which a label with the decedent's name has already been glued. The box is given to the funeral director. During every step of the process, body and name remain in synch. After a container of remains leaves Stonegate, Carmichael can still verify its identification number on the disc, checking the number against his records.
His identification system goes well beyond what the law requires. What made him take these precautions, he says, was an experience he had years ago visiting a now-defunct crematorium.
"He had four piles of cremated remains on his shop floor," Carmichael says of the operator of that business. "No identification with them. ... There was no way to account for this pile of ashes being different than this pile of ashes. So once I decided to invest in the cremation industry, I wanted to go that step further to make sure families always knew, yes, this is their loved one, based on me attaching this numeric disc."
Carmichael's discs (and the hefty paper trail behind them) confirm that Marts gave both Cutburth and Campbell the wrong ashes. Carlotta Campbell's supposed ashes were given to Mike Campbell on December 4, 2009, but Carmichael's records state that he didn't cremate her until December 5, and the bag of ashes given to Campbell didn't have the Stonegate ID disc (Carlotta was No. 1538.)
The ashes that Cutburth had at his wife's funeral couldn't have been Soledad's. Her mass was held July 27, 2010, at 10 a.m. Stonegate's records show that her cremation began at 10:50 a.m. that same day. While her family was mourning over her urn with their priest, Soledad was entering the retort.
Carmichael says he has found one other confirmed case of mistaken remains, in addition to Cutburth's and Campbell's. His friendly tone turns somber.
"Shocked would be more the word to describe my feelings on it, just because there's no reason to not give the family their loved one's remains," he says. "There's no benefit to anybody."
Marts' business model is centered on cremating in high volume and charging low prices. Carmichael says Marts' prices were impossible to beat. The Marts Memorial Services website is no longer active, but Carmichael says Marts was advertising cremations for less than $700 — far cheaper than other funeral directors in town.
"It's exceptionally low," Carmichael says. "Even your other discount providers are, like, at $895. Most funeral homes are above $1,000 for that service. So he captured a lot of business based on his pricing."
In addition to targeting mourners on a budget, Marts has an exclusive contract with Jackson County to arrange cremations of the county's deceased indigent population. He is paid $525 for each body he takes off the county's hands; from that, he pays the crematorium and for body delivery. Carmichael guesses that the county contract isn't very lucrative, with per-body overhead likely around $300. But such a contract provides a steady revenue stream. A spokesman for Jackson County estimates that Marts handled 103 cremations in 2010.
Working with the penniless and those without families or friends, though, has the side effect of many remains going unclaimed. Inspections by the board are closed to the public, but inspectors allegedly found multiple bags of ashes in Marts' shop — in essence, an ash stockpile. There is no way to confirm whose ashes make up that alleged stockpile; Marts' failed record-keeping will likely prevent a full accounting of every cremation he arranged.
"During this, the state did an inspection, and they did identify a large number of cremated remains that were in storage," Carmichael says a state inspector told him.
Still, his easy access to remains that can be given to impatient families isn't a reason to do it, Carmichael says. After all, Marts did have Soledad Cutburth and Carlotta Campbell cremated at Stonegate. "If you take this individual's cremated remains and give them to the wrong person, then, when that family comes in, their ashes are no longer available because you've given them away to somebody else. So you have to rob from Peter to pay Paul. Where does it stop?"
Marts still has support, despite what the board says, what Carmichael's documents show and what Cutburth and Campbell say.
"We need places like his [Marts Memorial Services] to help our clients," says Sandy Fanzwa, a bereavement coordinator at Grace Hospice. She says she has sent hundreds of destitute families to Marts. "People who don't have money don't have a lot of options. So, you know, he's given us that." She says she would trust Marts to arrange her own funeral.
Carmichael says that, until recently, Marts' reputation was as a personable professional. "I've always liked Mr. Marts, and I considered him to be a sincere businessman," he says.
Acknowledging that she doesn't have all the details about the complaints against Marts, Fanzwa says, "I'm sure everybody can make a mistake. I think those are kind of isolated incidents."
They're not, says Andy Smith, a lawyer with Humphrey Farrington McClain PC. He's representing Cutburth in a civil case seeking unspecified punitive damages from Marts. Smith also represents Campbell, although he has not filed a civil suit yet. He says the more horror stories come out, the more families are cracking open urns.
Despite mounting legal pressure, Marts appealed his license revocation, and in January, a judge granted a stay and appointed an attorney as interim manager to monitor the day-to-day operation of the business. Marts' contract with the county remains active.
The Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors is still working to remove Marts from the industry. "Obviously, the board believes the decision they made. They still stand by it," says Sandy Sebastian, board executive director. "They'll be pursuing an ultimate revocation." Sebastian adds that license revocation is uncommon. Of the 681 funeral establishments in Missouri, the board has disciplined approximately 20 and shuttered only four since July 2005, she says. Marts, the board hopes, will be No. 5.
Earlier this month, the board filed a motion, using information from the interim manager's reports, asking the court to lift the stay on revoking Marts' license. Marts, the board writes, was never licensed to sell pre-need packages, for which clients pay for their funerals before they die. He did sell them, but the manager says the customers' funds can't be found. The Commerce Bank account, which Marts told the board held the pre-need funds, was closed for having a zero balance.
The board also alleges that Marts has been uncooperative with the manager and hasn't provided him with requested documentation (including paperwork showing that Marts refunded some pre-need customers' money, as he claims he has). The cooling room, the motion says, still fluctuates in temperature and lacks a thermostat. Finally, Marts' landlord has told him to vacate the building by March 31, which will leave him without a licensed business location and nothing for the interim manager to operate.
Marts refused to comment for this story other than to say, "We are fighting everything, and there have been a lot things said that aren't true." In court documents filed in answer to the Cutburth lawsuit, Marts admitted having provided the wrong ashes. He told Fox 4 News in December, "I feel like we've done all we can to make it right with him [Cutburth]." He referred questions from The Pitch to his attorney, Sam Mirabile, who didn't return phone calls.
Discussing his wife at a Crossroads restaurant recently, Campbell remains calm. Anger bubbles up occasionally, but he checks himself, never allowing it to control his tone. Anger, he reminds himself and anybody listening, won't help the situation.
He places on the table two photos of the clear plastic bag of ashes Marts gave him. He points at them and wonders again whose remains they are. After a while, he can't look at the photos anymore.
Funeral directors, he says, have enormous power in their hands. "An airline pilot can make 999 perfect landings," Campbell says. "It just takes one pilot error to hurt a lot of people. And this guy's made several."
What hurts most, he adds, is that he and Carlotta will never have the memorial service he had in mind. The plan, he says, was to keep his wife's ashes until he died, then for his children to mingle the ashes and spread them off Mexico's Caribbean coast, the site of Booher's wedding and one of the final happy trips the family made together while Carlotta's cancer was in remission. "It seemed like a nice place for the family to be together again, and mingle our ashes out in the Caribbean, outside the reef at Tankah Tres Bay," he says. "In my grieving, that final punctuation gave me comfort." Now, he says he feels "just empty."
Filing suit against Marts, Booher says, is the only way her family can bring about consequences for Marts and to tell the story of Carlotta's disposition. "I would like to make sure that he doesn't have the opportunity to do it again and cause any other families the pain and anguish we've had to go through," she says.
To her family — and presumably to the seven other families that Carmichael's records indicate received the wrong ashes — Marts appears to have become jaded by his years in a business in which bodies are lifeless commodities.
"That's what Ron Marts has forgotten," Booher says. "That this is a person."