Face Off

A Harlem funeral home has been sued for losing bodies and filching corpses from nearby hospitals. Now it must answer charges that a dead man's body was chewed up by rats.

William Ragland was murdered for $500 and some heroin on July 11, 2002. A lone gunman shot him four times at close range, and William was dead within minutes.

At the time of his murder, the DEA had pegged Ragland as a crack dealer at the John Adams projects in the Bronx. But, says his older brother Tyrone, he was trying to get out of that life.

"We were on our way up," Tyrone remembers. The brothers were planning to buy a multi-family house in Queens, where they wanted to raise their children away from the guns and drugs in their Bronx neighborhood. But it was too late. As Tyrone looked at houses with his wife, a rival dealer in William's neighborhood was counting out bills to pay for the contract killing.

Tyrone Ragland was unprepared for what he found when he viewed his brother's corpse.
photo: Alana Cundy
Tyrone Ragland was unprepared for what he found when he viewed his brother's corpse.

William's murder was a brutal blow to his family, but his death left them unprepared what happened next. Despite the physical trauma to William's body, the Ragland family had every reason to believe that his corpse would be pre-pared in a way to allow for an open-casket funeral. But when Tyrone went to view his brother's body before the service he couldn't believe what he saw.

About a third of William's face had been chewed off by rats. "Chunks of his flesh, bites of him was taken of his neck, his arms, his forehead," Tyrone says. "They pulled the sheet down to his shoulders and that's all my stomach could take."

Just a couple months before his death, William had stood next to Tyrone as his best man. Photographs of the day show William wearing a beaming smile and a handsome white tuxedo. The photos of the damaged corpse bear almost no resemblance to these earlier pictures. William's nose is completely gone; only a bit of white cartilage is visible in a large hole in the middle of his face. White patches of chewed flesh cover his face, forehead, and parts of his neck.

Soon after the traumatic viewing, the Ragland family sued Riverton Funeral Home, as well as the morgue and another funeral home that handled William's body. While it is still unclear exactly where the damage occurred, it certainly wasn't the first time that funeral services had gone nightmarishly awry at Riverton.

A Voice investigation has uncovered a history of missing and damaged corpses at the family-run funeral home, which has been sued for negligence seven times since 1991. The accusations against the home read like a worst-case-scenario list of what could go wrong: missing cremated remains, rotting flesh, stinking corpses, crawling maggots.

Riverton's retired funeral director, 86-year-old Mary Davis Galloway, may be dragged into court to answer questions about her role in the care of the deceased William Ragland.

The Ragland case has resurrected old memories for many Riverton clients, prompting several families to renew their call for Galloway to be held accountable. It has also reopened old questions—like how Riverton managed to stay in business for nearly 50 years despite a reckless history of violating state regulations, ignoring court orders, and losing dead bodies.

Harlem Hospital is surrounded by a half-dozen funeral homes that feed off it. They wait for death to happen, for bodies to be moved from the emergency room to the morgue, and then finally to their porcelain and stainless steel tables for embalming.

The Strivers Row Funeral Home is half a block from the hospital, across the street from a dingy but much used basketball court. Unlike some of its nearby competitors that have red or green canopies, this home is advertised only by a modest black-and-white sign. It is the latest incarnation of an old family business, operating now under a new generation, a new name, and a new business certificate.

The storefront originally opened its doors in 1957 as the Riverton Funeral Home, a joint venture of siblings Mary Davis Galloway, Viola Chisholm, and Percy and Timothy Davis. They came to the business at a time when funeral directing was a highly respected field, second only to the clergy in the African-American community. It was also one of the more profitable professions open to black families—in 1977, Black Enterprise magazine called funeral directors the "most viable businessmen within the black community."

As years went by, regulation of the funeral-service industry increased. Rules were passed to protect consumers from being gouged by unscrupulous funeral directors. The Department of Health created the Bureau of Funeral Directing, which required funeral directors to complete a certification program, one-year residency, and national board exam.

William Ragland didn't deserve to be treated this way after death.
Alana Cundy

At some point in Riverton's long history, Mary and Percy teamed up and left Timothy to handle his own separate business, the Timothy A. Davis Funeral Home. (Chisholm dropped out of the business.) Both entities—Riverton and Davis funeral homes—continued to operate from the same location, causing confusion for clients, but providing a convenient way for the siblings to pass the buck when complaints were lodged. One former client remembered Galloway claiming that neither she nor Riverton were responsible for a mix-up with cremated remains because her brother was the one who handled it—despite the fact that all the paperwork displayed a "Riverton Funeral Home" logo. But this was only a minor foreshadowing of what was to come.

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