Funeral home in receivership and under police investigation as families await return of ashes, body
Winnipeg police investigating recent report of fraud at Wheeler Funeral Home
A Transcona funeral home and cemetery is in receivership and under investigation by the Winnipeg Police Service for fraud, causing concern for people who have prepaid for services, purchased a plot for burial or have a loved one's remains still inside the building.
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.
Bernadette Feakes, 39, found out from a post on a community Facebook group two weeks ago that the funeral home had gone into receivership. On Tuesday, she notified her 67-year-old mother, who had pre-purchased a burial plot from Wheeler Funeral Home beside her husband's. When he died in 2014, former funeral director Chad Wheeler conducted his service.
"It was very shocking. It makes me sad, because Chad Wheeler was amazing to us. He helped us through a very rough time," said Feakes.
"My mom was shocked. She didn't really understand. It's confusing to her. She just kept saying, 'I paid for it. I paid for it.'"
Not licensed to offer prepaid services
A spokesperson for the Funeral Board of Manitoba, which regulates and licenses funeral homes under three different acts, said Wheeler Funeral Home has not been licensed to offer prepaid services under the Prearranged Funeral Services Act since 2014-15.
According to both the receivership company and Chad Wheeler, $900,000 is currently held in trust for prepaid funeral services.
You pay for something like that, you think that it's all done and it's all taken care of. - Bernadette Feakes
The receivership company is working to ensure everyone who has pre-paid for service is accounted for in trust and so far, the money has been accounted for, a company spokesperson said.
Joel Lazer, managing partner of Lazer Grant LLP, said about 300 people are affected, and those concerned should email his company to make sure their money is there in trust.
"My advice to people in this situation is really just to wait it out. If they're concerned whether their money is there or not, then they should inquire about it. But if everybody phones on the same day then nobody's going to get an answer. We need some order to this," said Lazer.
He said though they have been receiving a "substantial" number of complaints, they're getting to them in a timely manner, and prioritizing people whose death is imminent. Those funerals will be covered either at the funeral home or another location, he said.
Lazer Grant is also looking into concerns that the prepurchased plots are not on the cemetery plot map. The company plans to settle the books for the funeral home and cemetery, then sell both, so that new owners can inherit the business without disruption.
If someone has prepurchased a burial plot at the cemetery and wants to make sure they are on the plot map, Lazer said they can call to inquire about that too.
But the uncertainty is still difficult for seniors like Feakes's mother.
"I think she's worried. She wants everything taken care of for her daughters. You pay for something like that, you think that it's all done and it's all taken care of. She's told me before in her own words, she doesn't want to be a burden for us. So it's just added stress to a situation."
Staff returning remains
For nearly a month, the Transcona funeral home's doors have been locked, with posted signs instructing people to call the receiver, Lazer Grant, in the event of an emergency or if they have concerns about property or assets.
Over the past few weeks, staff from the company have been meeting people at the funeral home to return ashes locked inside and even facilitate the transfer of a body out of province.
Wheeler Funeral Home, Cemetery and Crematorium is owned by Chantal Wheeler, who is still legally married to Chad Wheeler, though the two separated last year.
The company was put in her name after Chad, who previously owned the business, declared bankruptcy in 2012.
I have a considerable amount of empathy for the people that are going through grief and then this sort of intervenes in the middle. I think everybody tried to make it as seamless to them as possible.- Joel Lazer
Chantal said she was a stay-at-home mom and Chad continued to run the business.
This spring, her former business partner, Shawn Price, also a former business partner of Chad's, applied for receivership so a number of creditors would be paid — including Price, who alleges the company owes him $1 million, though he says he'll be last on the list.
Price says he went into business with Chad Wheeler in 2011, and helped purchase the funeral home building on 1800 Day St. for roughly $950,000. He says back then, he saw the funeral home and cemetery as a good investment, but later wanted out because of how the finances were being managed.
"We're very sensitive to the families," Price said, adding Winnipeg's funeral home community has stepped up to help families immediately impacted by the business going into receivership.
When reached by CBC News, Chad Wheeler said he didn't agree with or understand why his estranged wife's partner went the receivership route. He had a friend willing to buy the funeral home from her for $2.3 million, he said.
Still providing services at other locations
But he says even without the building, he's open for business, and is still providing funeral and celebration of life services at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd and St.George's Anglican Church — which the pastors of both churches confirm — as well as cremation services from an undisclosed location.
Lazer says they're working hard to accommodate all grieving families and clients.
"I have a considerable amount of empathy for the people that are going through grief and then this sort of intervenes in the middle. I think everybody tried to make it as seamless to them as possible."
Planning for end-of-life should be viewed like an investment and managed like an asset, according to the chair of the Funeral Board of Manitoba.
"Anyone who's sitting down really needs to understand what it is that they want to purchase, what type of plan they want to get, and make sure that whoever it is that they're with is licensed to provide that to them," said Alena Lukes.
A Funeral Board spokesperson provided a list of funeral homes licensed under the Prearranged Funeral Services Act.
Bernadette Feakes said she will be in touch with the receivership company, but despite her reassurances she'll take care of things, her mother still worries about the future.
"My heart goes out to all the families. It's hard enough to lose a loved one. It's hard enough to even think about planning a funeral service for yourself. And I just hope this gets rectified soon."