TURNER — The image that Tom Sparks’ memory calls up of his beloved sister isn’t right.
Gone are the images of the spitfire Nancy James, rising up to defend her younger brothers or reaching out a hand to help someone.
All he can see now is her corpse, blackened, bloated and lying in a cardboard coffin in the Bell Funeral Home garage in Providence, R.I.
Sparks, who lives in Rumford, mourns that image almost as much as he mourns the loss of his sister. And that makes him angry.
“I talked to people and they tell me there’s a huge lawsuit in this,” Sparks said. “But I don’t want that. I don’t want to sue anybody. I don’t want any money. I want an apology to my brothers and me and to the state of Rhode Island. And I just want to make damn sure this never happens to anyone ever again.”
According to Sparks, his sister’s body was not prepared for a funeral as he and his brothers had requested, and her unembalmed body was stored in a garage instead of made ready for viewing.
Christine Cardoza, funeral director at Bell Funeral Home in Providence, disputes every claim that Sparks has made — from the timeline to the condition of Nancy James’ body and even Sparks’ and his brothers’ reactions.
“This is not a case of my word against his,” she said. “I have proof that these are lies. I have documented everything to back up my side of the story and show the lies that he has said.”
Sparks filed a two-page complaint with the Rhode Island Department of Health detailing his recollections. Cardoza filed an eight-page response that picked apart Sparks’ complaint point by point.
Rhode Island’s Board of Funeral Directors reviewed Sparks’ complaint and dismissed it on July 29, saying it found no unprofessional conduct on the part of the funeral home or its employees.
Sparks is still upset.
“People shouldn’t be treated like that, not the lowest person,” Tom Sparks said. “There’s a right and a wrong and you just shouldn’t treat people like that.”
He and his three siblings grew up in Providence. Nancy, the oldest, kept a close watch on her three younger brothers. Tom, the next oldest, joined the U.S. Marines and eventually settled in Maine.
Ken, the youngest, followed Tom into the Marines and to Maine. He lives in Sabattus and the two operate Family Auto Center on Route 4 in North Turner.
Nancy and Don stayed in Providence and shared a house with her stepdaughter, Tatayana James.
Nancy suffered from emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and that’s what eventually killed her, according to her brothers. She wore an oxygen mask to bed, but the mask slipped off her face one night. Her family found her the next morning, June 20.
“I talked to the funeral home, and told them to get her ready,” Tom said. “Money was no object. We’re doing well enough up here; we run this shop and we’re pretty well off. So, there was no problem. We told them we’d be down there in two or three days.”
Cardoza disputes that. Tatayana, the stepdaughter, was James’ next of kin and the only person who could make decisions regarding her disposition. No matter what the brothers said, they did not have authority to dictate Nancy’s treatment, Cardoza said.
Tom said he and Ken drove to Providence on Thursday, June 23, stopping to pick up Don when they arrived in Rhode Island.
Cardoza disputes that, as well, saying the brothers canceled the Thursday appointment, pushing it back to Friday afternoon. She even went to so far as to delay the cremation for Thursday morning so they could see her.
“Every step, I went out of my way to help this family,” she said.
She said she urged them to come as quickly as possible, warning them that their sister was not dressed, had not been embalmed and had been dead for several days. Cardoza said she also advised them against viewing the corpse, saying it was not a good idea.
In her response, Cardoza wrote that Nancy James’ body had been kept in an air-conditioned room until June 24 and had been wheeled out to the garage before the brothers arrived. Another funeral was being performed and the home’s viewing rooms were not available.
Sparks said he was surprised to be taken to a garage.
“I thought she was taking us to a refrigeration unit out back or something,” Tom said. “But we went to the garage, and right on a table between the two doors where they pull their limos, was a cardboard box. And the smell, the smell of decomposition, was horrible.”
He claimed Cardoza struggled to remove the lid from the cardboard coffin and asked for his help. What he saw when he pulled off the lid was mostly unrecognizable, he said.
Cardoza called that an outright lie.
“The lid is made of cardboard and can be lifted with one hand,” she said. “Nothing was stuck to anything; nothing was out of the ordinary.”
Sparks wrote in his complaint to the state of Rhode Island that it appeared she had been simply thrown in the box naked, with her right hand tucked behind her back.
Cardoza called that a lie, as well.
“A body is prepared for cremation with the hands down at the side, and that’s how Ms. James was prepared,” she said.
Cardoza and Sparks disagree also on the brothers’ reaction. Tom claims that Donny fainted and Kenny cried out and tried to help Donny, and all three fled the room.
“I went out and stood in the middle of the parking lot and (Cardoza) was hot on my heels,” Tom said. “When I spun around, the tears were just running down my face, and she said she was going to call right now and get her cremated. And she knew I was angry.”
Tom said he got back into his car and waited for his brothers. Ken and Tom drove back to Maine that day, not even waiting to attend the memorial.
Cardoza said nobody cried out and no one fainted. The brothers looked at the body for about a minute, then she closed the lid and walked them to their car, thanked them and told them to have a safe ride home.
“If somebody had fainted in a public building like that, 911 would have been called,” she said. “But nobody did. It was a complete lie and a fabrication.”
Tom filed his complaint with Rhode Island within a week. According to a July 29 letter, the complaint was investigated and dismissed. The board determined Sparks’ allegations did not violate state rules.
“The Board found no unprofessional conduct and the complaint has been dismissed,” wrote Board Administrator J. Michel Martineau.
None of the practices described by the Sparks brothers are that unique, according to Maine funeral directors contacted by the Sun Journal. Cardboard coffins are frequently used when bodies are expected to be cremated and many small funeral homes don’t have refrigerated areas to store bodies.
“You have to remember that this is death, and it is not pretty,” said a Lewiston funeral director, who asked not to be identified. “Bodies do change and bloat and decompose and family members can be shocked by that.”
That’s why most funeral homes work hard to manage families’ expectations. They never take family members to visit a body in a garage, but in a viewing room.
“And I never let a family see something unless I see it first and know what to expect,” he said. “It’s like a rehearsal. You have to know exactly what’s going to happen. There is no excuse for being surprised.”
It’s too late for Sparks and his brothers to get the image of their dead sister out of their heads. Any conversation about Nancy invariably leads back to that image, that box, that garage, Tom said.
“I’m not sleeping; I can’t eat,” he said. “I’m to the point where I need some help. I was a Marine in Vietnam, and I’ve seen some horrific things, but nothing like this.”
Cardoza said she’s hurt, as well.
“I worked hard for the family and to do what’s right and what’s professional,” she said. “And then, our reputation gets dragged through the mud because of these lies and these exaggerations.”
Warning: This letter may contain images that are not appropriate for all audiences and some readers may find disturbing.