A ‘Legacy’ of lawsuits from multiple states for cremation service

Montana company won’t reveal where in the state it’s located

By: - April 7, 2021 10:19 am

A screenshot of Montana Cremation Services, which tells online visitors it has been in business for more than two decades.

The company whose founder earned the reputation of being “The Body Baron of Broward County” has moved to the Big Sky State.

Sort of.

An unlicensed funeral cremation services company that has found itself on the receiving end of lawsuits in at least five states and slapped with court orders to pay $30 million to victims in Florida alone has created an online shop that promises Montana families it has been “serving families with cremation needs for over two decades.”

And the history of the company does indeed run nearly two decades, but that history has largely not been in Montana, and it has drawn national attention over claims of mishandling remains as well as refusing to comply with court and state sanctions.

A basic internet search for cremation services in Montana turns up “Legacy Cremation Services” and offers cremation starting at $695. Its website is nearly identical to sites advertising the same services in 49 states, and uses the same stock photo image of an older couple walking along a beach, with the watermark imprint “Shutterstock” on the photo.

Legacy Cremation Services maintains a website in every state except one, North Carolina. These sites appear to be built on the same template and feature the same menu options. The toll-free number is the same for every site. Heritage Cremation Services, which is owned by Legacy Cremation Services, according to a representative, maintains a website listing similar services in every state, including North Carolina. In fact, the website for Heritage is dynamic, meaning a search doesn’t have to be specific to a state, it can also be customized for a town. For example, the Daily Montanan entered “services in Billings” and an identical site popped up. The Daily Montanan found that you could customize the site via the web address.

A screenshot of Heritage Cremation Services which automatically tailors to whatever location or situation a person wants. (Screenshot by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montana/accessed March 30, 2021).

A records check by the Daily Montanan at the state level confirmed that Legacy — or several of the other names the same company has used in other states — does not have a business license in Montana. Moreover, a check of funeral directors or crematorium operators also revealed that it is not licensed in the state. The Daily Montanan also checked with the state’s funeral directors association,and it confirmed that Legacy or anyone with the owner’s last name “Damiano” was not a member.

In 2002, Gioseppe Salvatore Damiano, who went by “Joseph,” was charged in Florida with illegally running a crematorium. Damiano died in 2017, but he had been working with his son, Anthony, throughout the tenure of the business, the State of Florida alleged in several actions.

Florida officials alleged that the Damianos had been renting bodies to university mortuary students, without the permission of the families, according to the Florida Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers and the Miami-Dade Medical Examiners Office. Florida courts also awarded victims in excess of $30 million against the businesses of the Damianos, including once for losing a Palm Harbor man’s dead mother’s cremains, according to Florida records.

On Legacy’s website, it offers customers the opportunity to have a loved one’s ashes scattered at sea.

“The popularity of scattering at sea is steadily growing as people look to the organic nature of the ocean to help them bring closure to their loss. Scattering at sea combines a sense of finality with a new beginning as it returns us to nature and our origins,” the site advertises. “If you are considering scattering the cremains of a loved one, we have lots of helpful information.”

But former employees of the company claimed the ashes of cremated clients were scattered in the parking lot after the families had paid for them to be scattered at sea, according to depositions taken in a 1996 case in Georgia.

In addition to fines and judgments, the Damianos have been sentenced to jail time and had as many as 23 counts of fraud brought against them.

In 2015, the state of Tennessee fined Legacy $8,000 for operating an unlicensed funeral service. At the same time, Florida ordered it to stop, and California did the same and ordered a $5,000 fine. The next year, the Damianos were held in contempt of court and ordered to serve three days in jail in Wake County, North Carolina, according to court documents.

Georgia secured a nearly $200,000 judgment against Anthony Damiano in 2017, and Massachusetts suspended its registration. Oregon also took action against the company at least on two different occasions, including entering default judgments, according to the Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board.

The court cases, the jail time and the media attention have not seemed to deter the business from operating. Just last month, the Iowa Board of Mortuary Science fined Legacy Funeral Services $10,000 for doing business without a license, and has threatened more civil penalties.

A receptionist at Legacy would not answer where in Montana it operated a physical location, if any. She said that a funeral director would answer that question, but when offered the chance to respond, an employee declined to say if any Montana location existed.

A.J. Mahoney, who gave his title as the funeral director and calling from a telephone number associated with North Carolina, said Legacy and Heritage don’t need licenses to do business in Montana. He said that a license is also unnecessary for the company to perform certain funeral-related business in Montana. He gave transportation of a dead body as an example, and called questions asked by the Daily Montanan as “ignorant.” Mahoney suggested it was not ethical to report on businesses in which reporters have no professional experience.

“You’re a peon,” Mahoney said.

Heritage Cremation Provider screen shot, accessed on March 30, 2021 (Darrell Ehrlick for the Daily Montanan).

When asked about the similarities of the websites and other claims by customers, Mahoney stated the company was licensed. When asked to provide the state or certificate, he replied, “You’re a big time reporter, you figure it out.”

The Daily Montanan also asked questions about sanctions, fines and court cases in places like Iowa and Florida.

“It’s not a crime to advertise on the internet,” Mahoney said. “They can impose all the fines they want, but that’s not going to stop us. We’re licensed.”

The company also boasts a number of associations, memberships and logos, for example, the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association. Officials there have confirmed they are not members.

Most of its sites have a similar look, some with sections either taken from other sites or featuring “dummy text.”  For example, Montana and Iowa share some of the same friends and family testimonials. Many of the testimonials only have a single first name attached making identifying them impossible. As the Daily Montanan researched, it could not find published obituaries that matched the family names and details. That same section had “dummy text” in Latin, which is often used by designers of web templates to showcase the look of the site in the design phase; actual sentences pertaining to the business are meant to replace the Latin text later.

The National Funeral Directors Association has issued warnings about Legacy, calling it an “internet broker and a middle man.” In other words, most of the work with the bodies is taken care of by another funeral home or crematorium. The association has warned Legacy is “an unlicensed seller of funeral and cremation services with a long track record of consumer fraud and abuse.”

R. Lee Darlington of Darlington Funeral and Cremation Service in Kalispell said that services like Legacy and Heritage prey on grieving families who are not familiar with the laws and prices.

“They look at the cost, and they notice it’s less expensive,” Darlington said.

He said he and other funeral businesses across Montana have been contacted by Legacy, who then asks for the local funeral home to coordinate the memorial service, death certificate and cremation.

“You don’t have a local business, and you don’t have a bricks-and-mortar building,” Darlington said about Legacy. “It’s very disturbing that they’re out there marketing, and families are unable to distinguish who they are.”

He and another funeral director confirmed that in order to transport or sell funeral services in Montana, the business must have a license and a licensed funeral director in the state of Montana. Legacy and Mahoney disputes that, saying it can transport human remains across the country without needing state permission or licenses.

Darlington said it’s not uncommon for funeral directors to work across state lines to help each other, but that’s because every state requires licensure. For example, if a person dies here, Darlington may help a funeral director in another state prepare the body for transportation. He said the state has to issue a death certificate and give its approval for it to cross state lines.

He said if Legacy acts as a business development service, scouting customers or soliciting families online, and if a local funeral home is licensed and willing to file the paperwork and perform the cremation at Legacy’s cost, then that’d put the business in a gray area.

“If they’re willing to do that, then they’re in no man’s land,” Darlington said.

However, the responsibility for properly handling the body or filing the appropriate documents would be the responsibility of the state-licensed crematorium or funeral director.

Dan Ritter, of the Businesses Standards Division of the Montana Department of Commerce, said that while offering services online — advertising — isn’t regulated, any business performing services, including cremation in Montana, must be licensed.

The Daily Montanan placed a series of calls to Legacy for this article. One of those calls was placed on hold. The hold music and words said that Legacy was a member of the Better Business Bureau and the Green Burial Council.

The Green Burial Council, based in California, confirmed that Legacy was not a member and also said it only had one certified green burial service in Montana, Dokken-Nelson in Bozeman.

The Better Business Bureau reported that Legacy Funeral services is not a member, and had an “F” rating on its site. It has records of consumer complaints for both Heritage, one of the other names the Damianos has used, and Legacy, and those pages are public. Many customers tell about entrusting the services and then, in some cases, not seeing the cremains without additional payments.

It was also tied to Heritage Cremation Providers in Englewood, Colorado. A call to a different toll-free number on the website went to the same woman who confirmed she had also answered the telephone for the company that was reportedly in Montana.

“Heritage bought Legacy,” she replied.

Iowa Capital Dispatch Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman was able to reach Damiano at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for comment on the recent Iowa action, but Damiano hung up after Kauffman identified himself as a reporter.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.