- Lawsuit says funeral home backed out of verbal agreement to provide final services
- Picayune Funeral Home denies allegations
(CNN)A gay man is suing a funeral home in Mississippi, alleging that it refused to cremate his husband because it did not "deal with their kind."
John "Jack" Zawadski, 82, and his nephew filed a lawsuit against the Picayune Funeral Home's owners seeking damages for breach of contract and emotional distress.
The lawsuit accuses them of backing out of a verbal agreement to provide final services for Zawadski's husband, Robert Huskey, in May 2016 after discovering he was gay. The reversal compounded the family's grief and left them scrambling for alternatives. The only provider they could find was 90 miles away, the lawsuit alleges, leading the family to cancel Huskey's memorial.
The funeral home denied all the claims in a response to the lawsuit. Messages left at the funeral home were not returned Tuesday night.
The lawsuit, filed in March and announced Tuesday by law firm Lambda Legal, comes at a contentious time for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. There's no federal law that protects LGBT people from discrimination, leading Democrats to introduce the Equality Act of 2017 Tuesday.
The bill is intended to override religious freedom measures such as the one Mississippi tried to enact in 2016 that would effectively legalize the treatment Zawadski said he experienced. Moreover, advocacy groups fear President Trump is considering an executive order that would create such religious exemptions.
"I felt as if all the air had been knocked out of me," Zawadski said in a statement. "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."
Zawadski and Huskey met in 1965 in California. They moved around the country, teaching special education classes and running an apple orchard, before retiring in Picayune, Mississippi in 1997, for the friendly neighbors and warm climate, the lawsuit states.
They finally married in July 2015, weeks after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage settled. Less than two months later, Huskey's health began to deteriorate and he moved into a nursing home.
As Huskey's death became imminent in 2016 his nephew made arrangements with Picayune Funeral Home to transport his uncle's body from the nursing home when the time came. He chose the funeral home for its location and on-site crematorium to ensure Huskey's body would not have to be moved more than necessary.
It was also important to the couple that the funeral home be near their community so friends could gather for a memorial luncheon after the cremation, the lawsuit says.
Their nephew, John Gaspari, spoke with an employee and entered into a verbal agreement to transport Huskey's body from the nursing home to the funeral home for cremation and related services. The day before his death on May 10, 2016, he called again to let them know Huskey would likely pass away within the next 24 hours. Again, the lawsuit claims, a representative assured him "all that was needed was a call from the nursing home when Bob passed away" and they would take care of everything.
After his uncle's death, Gaspari said the nursing home contacted him and told him the funeral home "adamantly" refused to provide services after learning through the paperwork that Huskey's spouse was male, according to the lawsuit.
The nursing home told Gaspari the funeral said it did not "deal with their kind," the lawsuit says. Furthermore, the nursing home representative said the body needed to be moved immediately because it did not have a morgue on site.
The news prompted a frantic search for another funeral home with an on-site crematorium that led the family to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, some 90 miles away.
The "turmoil and exigency" created by the funeral home "permanently marred the memory of Bob's otherwise peaceful passing," the lawsuit states.
"Because of the added distance of the alternative funeral home and the last minute rush to find alternate arrangements after defendants left them in the lurch, John and Jack were unable to gather friends in the community, as had been their original plan, to honor Bob and support them in their grief."
The lawsuit requests a jury trial and unspecified monetary damages.