Families dealing with the ongoing investigation into Sunset Mesa Funeral Home Directors came together Sunday, gathering for a second year to remember loved ones whose bodies, they have been told, were harvested and sold without their knowledge or consent.
The grief is raw, but those who attended the memorial at Confluence Park in Delta are able to lean on each other.
“This victims support group has pretty much saved my life, because I don’t know what I would do without my new family,” said Judy Cressler, who is mourning her father, Harold Cressler.
Judy Cressler said she could sense something wasn’t right with her father’s arrangements, but when she tried to check into her suspicions, she was thought of as “crazy” — until, that is, the FBI raided Sunset Mesa Funeral Home and Crematory in February of last year. Although the agency has not told the general public the nature of its investigation, multiple people, citing notification from the FBI, have said Sunset Mesa and its owner Megan Hess were involved in selling bodies and body parts without the proper consent of next of kin. Hess denies the allegations.
The fate of their loved ones haunts many, those who gathered Sunday said.
“I know my dad’s spirit left his body immediately and he’s in heaven,” Cressler said.
But she had a message for those involved in the scandal: “In the book of Numbers, it says ‘Be sure your sins will find you out. They have. … We need arrests, convictions and prison sentences for everyone involved.”
Rick Neuendorf, whose wife Cherrie was to have been cremated, but whose disposition is unknown, said the connection with others similarly afflicted has been the one bright spot amid the misery.
“I think it’s great everyone here is standing up for (the deceased),” added mourner Scott Reese.
Others told of the “devastation” upon learning their deceased family members had been “torn apart” and sold. “Angry,” said a supporter of one family, “doesn’t begin to describe it.”
Debra Schum, who cared for her cancer-stricken friend Lora Lee Johnson until her death and arranged for cremation — only to later learn from the FBI Johnson’s body had been sold — didn’t hold back.
“This is the most bizarre, abnormal thing I’ve ever been involved in in my life. And I have no frame of reference for it. We’re all going through the same thing,” she said.
“I’m tired of people telling me ‘You need to get over it. You need to move on.’ I’m sick of it. This has shaken me to my core,” Schum added.
Even after the FBI contacted her, she said, “I did not know how this was going to impact every aspect of my life — every aspect.”
Schum is a firefighter. When she goes on fatality calls now, she said she is “worried” about what will happen to the body, but simultaneously, does not want to cause undue alarm to family members.
Others who are removed from the Sunset Mesa scandal do not understand “the intense rage,” she also said.
“ … I am angry. And I’m hurt and I’m scared, but mostly, I’m angry. It’s a horrible way to make new friends, but thank you all,” Schum said.
Like many present Sunday, Schum is a party to one of six different lawsuits filed against Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation and related parties. She organized Sunday’s event and also led the inaugural memorial gathering last September.
Sunday, she found a sign: a dove’s feather, which she held up high as a symbol of peace before inviting those who came to step forward and read the names of their loved ones and what the FBI told them had happened.
Each person received a yellow ribbon and walked to the center of the powwow arbor, where they tied it around a potted maple tree. The tree, donated by San Juan Gardens, is to be planted in Montrose in the near future.
Schum then read the names and death dates of people whose next of kin could not attend the gathering. Attendees, including Julee Glynn, Cressler and Jean Hulet, tied ribbons to the tree for those deceased.
“There are many, many more victims than this,” Schum said.
After the names were read, the families joined hands in a circle around the memorial maple, spoke the Serenity Prayer and made brief statements about how what happened continues to affect them.
They told of an ongoing sense of horror, even ostracism — and expressed hope that holding bad actors accountable would send a message to anyone else inclined to mistreat the dead.
Getting over what happened to her brother, Michael Good, is “impossible,” Glynn said.
Although it wasn’t the way anyone wanted to meet, attendees reiterated they are grateful for each other.
“It makes you realize we’re not alone,” Charlotte Schendel said.
The memorial event concluded later Sunday evening with a candlelight vigil in Confluence Park.