Widower files suit against Mississippi funeral home for allegedly refusing to cremate gay man

PHOTO: John "Jack" Zawadski is suing a funeral home in Picayune, Miss., for allegedly refusing to cremate his husband.PlayWLOX
WATCH Mississippi funeral home accused of refusing to cremate gay man

After losing his husband and partner of more than 50 years, a grieving man is suing a Mississippi funeral home for allegedly refusing to cremate his husband after realizing the men were a couple.

John “Jack” Zawadski and Robert “Bob” Huskey fell in love soon after they met in 1965. They lived together in California, Colorado and Wisconsin before they retired and settled in Picayune, Mississippi, in 1997.

Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of nationwide marriage equality, Zawadski and Huskey married in Mississippi in July 2015. By then, Huskey’s health was failing. Soon after the wedding, he entered a nursing home, where he would live out his final days.

In late-April 2016, the couple’s nephew John Gaspari made arrangements with the Picayune Funeral Home to provide transportation, cremation and related services after Huskey’s death. The funeral home owns and operates the only onsite crematorium in Pearl River County.

After Huskey, 86, died May 11 of that year, the nursing home provided the Picayune Funeral Home with the necessary paperwork confirming his death and identifying Zawadski as his husband. The nursing home contacted Gaspari and informed him that the funeral home “adamantly refused” to pick up Huskey’s body for cremation, according to court documents obtained by ABC News.

The nursing home told Gaspari that after the funeral home received the paperwork indicating that Huskey’s surviving spouse was a man, it allegedly refused to provide services because it did not “deal with their kind,” according to court documents. The funeral home denies the charge.

“I felt as if all the air had been knocked out of me,” Zawadski, 82, said in a statement Tuesday. “Bob was my life, and we had always felt so welcome in this community. And then, at a moment of such personal pain and loss, to have someone do what they did to me, to us, to Bob, I just couldn’t believe it. No one should be put through what we were put through.”

PHOTO: Picayune Funeral Home in Picayune, Miss., is accused of refusing to transport and cremate the body of a gay man. WLOX
Picayune Funeral Home in Picayune, Miss., is accused of refusing to transport and cremate the body of a gay man.

Lambda Legal and co-counsel Rob McDuff of Jackson, Mississippi, filed suit against the Picayune Funeral Home, as well as its parent company, Brewer Funeral Services, on March 7 on behalf of Zawadski and Gaspari, who is the executor of Huskey’s estate. Lambda Legal, the nation’s oldest and largest legal organization dedicated to LGBT civil rights, announced the lawsuit this week.

“What happened to this family is shocking,” Lambda Legal attorney Beth Littrell said in a statement Tuesday. “Jack Zawadski’s grief was compounded by injustice and callous treatment from the very place that should have helped ease his suffering.”

The lawsuit, which was filed in the Pearl River County Circuit Court, seeks to recover damages and demands a jury trial. The plaintiffs allege that the Picayune Funeral Home refused to honor agreed-upon arrangements after learning that Zawadski and Huskey were married.

The Picayune Funeral Home published a note on its website responding to the lawsuit, saying, “We cannot go into details due to pending litigation. They stated in news we refused a gay man service. This is absolutely false. We have served several gay families previously. We treat everyone the same.”

In a statement obtained by ABC News Thursday, defense attorney Silas McCharen said his clients, the Brewers, who own and operate Picayune Funeral Home, never said the words "deal with their kind" to anyone and have never refused to provide funeral services based on someone's sexual orientation.

"It is my customary practice never to comment to the media on pending litigation. However, since Plaintiffs and their attorneys want to try this case in the court of public opinion and not in court based on the evidence and the law, I am compelled to comment, lest my silence be interpreted as agreement with what is being reported," McCharen said in the statement.

"This is not a civil rights case or a discrimination case. Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint sets forth only state law-based tort and contract claims. Ms. Brewer denies she ever spoke the words 'deal with their kind' to anyone, including anyone at the nursing home where Plaintiffs’ decedent, Bob Huskey, passed away. Picayune Funeral Home has never refused to provide funeral services based on sexual orientation."

Since the news broke about the lawsuit, McCharen also told ABC News, the funeral home owners, their employees and their families have received threatening phone calls from "blocked numbers." At least one caller said he was going to kill them and blow up the funeral home, according to McCharen.

"I do not believe that the plaintiffs in this case or their counsel had anything to do with the calls," he told ABC News. "The calls started after the story first appeared but appear to have stopped."

According to court documents, the Bedford Care Center of Picayune, where Huskey died, did not have an onsite morgue, and Huskey’s body needed to be moved immediately. Zawadski and Gaspari “scrambled to find alternative arrangements” and were “devastated and frantic for hours,” the lawsuit states.

They managed to locate a funeral home with an onsite crematorium in Hattiesburg, some 90 miles from the nursing home and where Zawadski lives. But Huskey’s body couldn’t stay at the nursing home for the time it would take for the Hattiesburg funeral home to send transportation. So Zawadski and Gaspari had to secure yet another funeral home in Picayune to transport the body, according to court documents.

“Because of the added distance of the alternative funeral home and the last minute rush to find alternative arrangements after defendants left them in the lurch, John and Jack were unable to gather friends in the community, as had been their original plan, to honor Bob and support them in their grief,” the lawsuit states.

“John made all necessary arrangements before Bob’s passing in order to shield his 82-year-old uncle from additional suffering and to allow friends to gather to support Jack in his grief,” Littrell said in the statement Tuesday. “Instead, Bob’s peaceful passing was marred by turmoil, distress and indignity, adding immeasurable anguish to Jack and John’s loss. This should not have happened to them and should not be allowed to happen again.”