The owner of a Picayune funeral home said she has been besieged by angry phone calls and threats after a lawsuit alleged that her funeral home refused services to a gay man.
In a press release Tuesday, Lambda Legal, a gay, lesbian, transgender and queer legal rights organization, announced the lawsuit, originally filed in March. In the suit, a gay man’s widower and nephew are suing a south Mississippi funeral home, claiming they refused to perform his cremation after discovering he was gay — a claim that funeral home officials strongly deny.
“We just didn’t do that,” Brewer Funeral Home co-owner and manager Henrietta Brewer said through tears during an interview with Mississippi Today. “We just keep saying, ‘Why us?’ We’re the ones that treat everyone good. We don’t even think that, so we’d never say it. And our employees don’t think that either.”
The man’s widower, Jack Zawadski of Picayune, and his nephew, John Gaspari of Colorado, are seeking unspecified monetary damages for breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, and the intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
According to the suit, Gaspari had finalized all arrangements for the funeral of his uncle, Robert Huskey, who died in hospice days after his 86th birthday. But the lawsuit alleges that Brewer Funeral Home of Picayune abruptly refused these services, including transporting and storing his uncle’s body, after they learned Huskey was married to a man.
The suit goes on to say that the nursing home where Huskey had died told Gaspari that, when they called to arrange transport, someone at Brewer had said they don’t “deal with their kind.”
“I felt as if all the air had been knocked out of me,” Zawadski said in the press release from Lambda Legal. “Bob was my life, and we had always felt so welcome in this community. And then, at a moment of such personal pain and loss, to have someone do what they did to me, to us, to Bob, I just couldn’t believe it. No one should be put through what we were put through.”
Brewer said that, counter to what the suit claims, her funeral home has served “well over a dozen” gay people and their families since she and her husband opened it in 2006, including one man who is buried in the funeral home’s privately owned cemetery.
“His husband lives in Florida now, and he calls us all the time, and we go out and put fresh flowers at his grave,” Brewer said.
Brewer said she was blindsided by the lawsuit and doesn’t understand where the allegations came from.
“I feel sorry for (Huskey’s) husband. I know he’s hurting. But we didn’t even talk to him.”
According to the lawsuit, although Huskey’s nephew Gaspari had made the arrangements with funeral home’s co-owner, Ted Brewer, directly, it was the nursing home, Bedford Care Center of Picayune, that contacted a funeral home employee to arrange transport of Huskey’s body. And, according to the lawsuit, the explanation that the funeral home won’t “deal with their kind” was said to a nursing home employee. Neither the nursing home employee nor the funeral home employee are named in the lawsuit.
Lambda Legal attorney Beth Littrell said that after the nursing home relayed this message to Gaspari, neither he nor Zawadski sought out the owners to clarify if refusing services to gay people was company policy.
“After the indignity and trauma of the moment, neither of the family members were willing to put themselves in a position of calling the funeral home directly. It was bad enough that this happened, and they really turned their attention to grieving,” Littrell said.
Before Huskey’s death in May 2016, Zawadski and Huskey had been together for 52 years. They married in Mississippi after same-sex marriage bans nationwide were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015.