A south Georgia funeral home broke no laws when it used newspapers to stuff the body of a Valdosta teenager found dead last year inside a rolled up gym mat at his school, state regulators concluded in a report sent to the teen’s parents.
The family of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson of Valdosta filed a complaint with the Georgia Board of Funeral Service last year after newspaper was found in the place of his missing organs when the body was exhumed for a second autopsy. Johnson’s parents, who are fighting to have their son’s death declared a homicide after authorities concluded it was a freak accident, said they were outraged and found the funeral home’s use of newspapers to be disrespectful.
Attorneys for the Johnson family released a letter from the board saying it found Harrington Funeral Home broke no state law. However, the board also noted that using newspaper to fill a body cavity is not considered a “best practice” and that other materials are “more acceptable than newspaper,” The Valdosta Daily Times reported Saturday.
Roy Copeland, an attorney for Harrington Funeral Home, said its owners were “certainly happy” with regulators’ finding that it did nothing illegal.
Students at Lowndes High School discovered Johnson’s body Jan. 11, 2013, inside a rolled up gym mat propped against the wall beside the bleachers. A Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner concluded he died from positional asphyxia, meaning his body was stuck upside down and he was unable to breathe. Sheriff’s investigators concluded Johnson got trapped in the mat while reaching for a gym shoe that had fallen inside.
Johnson’s parents insist someone must have killed him and have pushed to reopen the case. The U.S. attorney for middle Georgia is reviewing the investigation with help from the FBI.
It’s still unclear what happened to Johnson’s internal organs after the GBI autopsy. The GBI has said it returned the organs to the body before sending it to the funeral home. But the funeral home has said the organs were missing when the body arrived. Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson has said many of Johnson’s organs were deemed too badly decomposed to be preserved and had to be disposed of before the body was embalmed.
Funeral home cleared in KJ case
The funeral home that prepared Kendrick Johnson’s body for public viewing and burial by reportedly stuffing his body cavity with newspapers and other filler material to replace internal organs removed during an autopsy did not break state law, the Georgia Board of Funeral Service has concluded.
But the board also said in a letter to the Johnson family the Harrington Funeral Home’s decision to replace the autopsied organs with newspapers is not considered “best practice” for embalming.
The board, in a report released Thursday, said filling a body cavity “is a necessary preparation to present a deceased body for public viewing,” adding, however, that there are other materials “more acceptable than newspaper” for that purpose.
The state agency investigated the funeral home’s handling of Johnson’s body after the family complained to the state about discovering the newspapers when the body was exhumed for a second autopsy. The papers replaced the deceased’s heart, lungs and other internal organs.
Johnson, 17, was found lifeless in a rolled up wrestling mat in the old gym at Lowndes High School a year ago. An investigation by the sheriff’s office and an autopsy by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation concluded his death was a freak accident; that he had become trapped upside down in the six-foot tall mat while reaching for an athletic shoe.
Johnson’s parents, Jacquelyn and Kenneth Johnson, believe their son was a victim of wrongdoing, possibly murder, and a cover-up. They have been pressing for reopening the investigation into his death. The FBI, at the direction of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, has been investigating the case in recent weeks.
Roy Copeland, an attorney for Harrington, said the funeral home was “certainly happy” with the funeral board’s finding that it did nothing illegal in embalming Johnson’s body.
“The reputation of Mr. Harrington in the community, and the reputation of the funeral home is outstanding,” said Copeland.
Antonio Harrington, the funeral home’s director, said he was baffled by concern over the handling of Johnson’s body. He said 90 percent of funeral homes use shredded newspaper in embalming procedures.
“Newspaper is a practice that has been used for years,” said Harrington, “Shredded paper, cotton and sawdust are used to restore normalcy to the body (for public viewing). Very few use sawdust. The majority use paper.”
“Personally, I have no ill will towards the family. I pray for them,” added Harrington, “We’ve done nothing wrong. It was a hurtful thing. It hurt my family, and we are glad our name has been cleared.”