Manitoba

After 3 months in storage, body shipped out from funeral home in receivership

The body of a man stuck inside Wheeler Funeral Home is being transported out of province three months late and on the receivership company’s dime.

Money, ashes unaccounted for as Lazer Grant tries to prepare funeral home for resale

Lazer Grant says most of the $900,000 for prepaid services booked through Wheeler Funeral Home remains in trust at a bank and two insurance companies, but they've heard from 'a few' people who say their money is missing. (CBC)

A chartered accounting firm managing a Winnipeg funeral home in receivership and a Manitoba judge want help from the Funeral Board of Manitoba in settling matters involving ashes and assets at the home.

Representatives of Lazer Grant Inc. met with Judge Chris Martin Tuesday morning to present a report of their progress in preparing Wheeler Funeral Home for resale.

Wheeler Funeral Home, Cemetery and Crematorium went into court-ordered receivership on March 20, 2018, and is now being managed by chartered accounting firm Lazer Grant LLP.

Winnipeg police confirm their financial crimes unit is investigating a recent report of fraud involving the funeral home.

In court Tuesday, Lazer Grant said they want more input from Chad Wheeler, former funeral director at the Transcona business, on helping them find records and funds for prepaid services and pre-purchased cemetery plots but so far, they say, he hasn't played ball.

Wheeler did not return calls from the CBC.

The problems include "lack of records, lack of co-operation," Tom Frohlinger, counsel for Lazer Grant, told Judge Martin.

Collin LeGall, the managing partner at Lazer Grant handling the case, confirmed that a man's body, which had been in storage for three months at the funeral home, was finally on its way out of the province Tuesday morning.

Wheeler Funeral Home and cemetery is in receivership and under police investigation as families await the return of ashes and even a body. 1:44

The man's family in Winnipeg paid about $8,000 to Chad Wheeler for funeral services and transportation of the body. The funeral happened — the transfer did not.

"It's so hard losing a loved one, and in our case very suddenly, and then all this follows. [You] can't even grieve properly," said the daughter-in-law of the man who passed away. 

She described the experience as a "nightmare," ever since finding out in March that the body hadn't arrived as expected in February.

CBC News is not disclosing the family's name, as they didn't want to upset or alarm other family members about their situation.

The body is embalmed and sealed inside a blue coffin, said managing partner Joel Lazer, and his company is absorbing the roughly $2,000 cost to ship it out of province.

Missing financial records

Over 100 sets of ashes remain at Wheeler Funeral Home and need to be claimed by next of kin, according to LeGall. All of the ashes are labelled, he reassured the court.

He said his company hasn't been able to find financial records for at least 20 people who have come forward in the past month to say they prepaid for funeral services.

Those whose money was placed in trust are safe, he told the judge, and close to $900,000 is accounted for.

However, in the past three months, several people prepaid for services in cash, he said. That's the money they can't find now. 

Additionally, LeGall said there are missing cremation and death certificates flagged by the Funeral Board of Manitoba, but they haven't been able to get ahold of Wheeler or two of his employees who might be able to help.

Frohlinger asked the judge to freeze the funds in trust to preserve the value of the cemetery and funeral home until it is sold. Martin requested documentation on the estimated value of assets, which Frohlinger said he would provide in private.

Under a freeze, people who have prepaid for a funeral and want their money back now would not be able to get a refund.

Judge Martin stressed his primary concern is the public interest — namely families — in this matter, and said he would like more direction from the Funeral Board of Manitoba before proceeding.

"I can't tell you how to dispose of [unclaimed] ashes," he told Lazer Grant Inc.

Funeral Board licence required

In Manitoba, there are two main options to prepay for funeral service, according to the Funeral Board of Manitoba. Money can be placed in a trust account at a bank, which is regulated by the funeral board under the Prearranged Funeral Services Act. Wheeler Funeral Home has not held a valid licence under this act since 2015.

The receivership company told the judge Wheeler had been selling pre-paid services despite that.

Money can also be put into insurance with an insurance company. To access it, a funeral director must be licensed as a restricted insurance agent with the Insurance Council of Manitoba.

Neither Wheeler Funeral Home or Wheeler have been listed as a restricted insurance agent since May 2017. 

Frohlinger plans to draft an order for Judge Martin to sign that would require Wheeler and his employees to provide information regarding the financial records, login info for a computer on site, and who has paid for plots in the cemetery.

The Funeral Board of Manitoba confirmed Wheeler's funeral director's licence is still valid.

The Winnipeg Police Service's financial crimes unit is continuing its investigation into allegations against Wheeler Funeral Home.

About the Author

Erin Brohman

Health reporter

Erin Brohman is a former pediatric nurse at the Stollery Children Hospital in Edmonton and the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. After graduating from King's College with a journalism degree, she took off to Yellowknife to work for CBC North for nearly two years, then settled in Winnipeg. At CBC Manitoba she blends her interests in health care and sharing people's stories. Story tip? Email erin.brohman@cbc.ca.