Unlicensed, ‘scandal-ridden’ broker offers cremation services to grieving Iowa families

By: - March 19, 2021 1:51 pm

The web site of Legacy Funeral Services remains active despite an order to halt business in Iowa. The company maintains no physical presence in Iowa or in other states where it is has been accused of illegally offering services to grieving families. (Screen shot from Legacy Funeral Services web site; civil penalty order from Iowa Board of Mortuary Science)

A scandal-plagued cremation service that was recently fined $10,000 for operating without a license in Iowa is continuing to solicit customers in the state, despite decades of allegedly fraudulent activity.

In February, the Iowa Board of Mortuary Science fined the Colorado-based company Legacy Funeral Services $10,000 for doing business in Iowa without a license.

According to the board, the company has, since 2019, sold funeral arrangements and cremation services to  Iowans, in violation of laws that require a license for the practice of mortuary science. In one case, the company allegedly told a western Iowa woman her husband would be cremated in Sioux City, but then took the body to Des Moines for cremation. The board has warned the company to refrain from doing business in Iowa or it “may result in additional civil penalties.”

The company’s website, however, remains active and it lists Iowa as one of the states in which it does business. The website also includes the statement, “We’re a part of your community. We’re family … We also support many local charities, schools, and other community efforts.”

In fact, the company maintains no physical presence in Iowa or in other states where it is has been accused of illegally offering funeral and cremation services to grieving families.

An Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter called the company’s toll-free line to inquire about cremation services in Des Moines. The operator who took the call answered the phone by saying, “Funeral home,” and then said, “The director is with a family just at this moment,” adding that he would return the call later.

According to court records and various states’ licensing boards, company founder Gioseppe Salvatore Damiano, also known as Joseph Damiano, established the business — one of several related to cremations and funerals — in 2012, with the assistance of his son, Anthony. The company acts as a broker, or middleman, by selling funeral and cremation services that are then sub-contacted to legitimate, licensed operators.

In 2002, Joseph Damiano, then known as the “Body Baron of Broward County” due to his contracts for transporting and cremating corpses, was criminally charged in Florida with running an illegal crematorium and concealing his interest in one of his related businesses.

At roughly the same time, the Florida Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers filed two complaints against Damiano in connection with an alleged scheme to rent bodies to university mortuary students, for a fee of $110 each, without the permission of the deceased’s families. Former employees claimed the ashes of cremated clients were sometimes scattered in a parking lot after family members had paid for them to be cast into the sea.

By that time, Anthony Damiano had been arrested by the Florida authorities and charged with 23 counts of fraud for running an unlicensed crematorium. He later pleaded no contest to the charges.

The criminal charges and civil claims seem to have had little effect on the Damianos’ business.

In 2015, the state of Tennessee fined Legacy-Heritage $8,000 for operating an unlicensed funeral service in that state. That same year,  the Florida Department of Financial Services ordered Legacy Funeral Services to stop operating in the state. At about the same time, California’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau filed a cease-and-desist order against the company and imposed a $5,000 fine for operating without a license.

In 2016, the Damianos were each ordered to serve three days in jail for contempt of court with regard to their alleged refusal to comply with a North Carolina court order barring them from the unlicensed practice of funeral services. The jail sentence was suspended pending the completion of two years of unsupervised probation.

In 2017, five years after the senior Damiano registered his business in Colorado, the state’s Office of Funeral Home and Crematory Registration ordered him to stop doing business there and revoked his registration, citing 30 complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and cease-and-desist orders in several states. The order, which accused Damiano of using his “Colorado registration to conduct unlicensed funeral practices” in other states, had no apparent effect on the business.

Also in 2017, the state of Georgia secured a $185,000 judgment against Anthony Damiano and Heritage/Legacy, and Massachusetts suspended Heritage’s registration. In Tennessee, cease and desist orders have been issued against Legacy and Heritage, and in North Carolina an injunction was issued against both companies, alleging they had been providing unlicensed funeral services. Similar actions have been taken by and Oregon’s state mortuary and cemetery board and by the North Carolina Board of Funeral Service.

Joseph Damiano died in April 2017, after which Anthony took over the business, which now operates under several names, including Heritage Cremation Provider, Legacy Funeral Service, Legacy Cremation Services, Families First Funeral Home and Funeral Services and The Funeral Group.

Today, Google searches for phrases like “Iowa cremation” will typically produce a link to the Heritage-Legacy web site that will then display a state-specific company name, “Iowa Cremation Services,” generated by the search engine.

Although Legacy’s website includes the logo of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, the association’s legal counsel, Poul Lemasters, told Tampa Bay’s ABC affiliate, WFTS, that Legacy was using the ICCFA logo without its approval.

“They will actually take our logo, ICCFA, and then they’ll post it on their site, saying, you know, ‘proud member’ or you know, ‘member in good standing’ which they are not,” Lemasters told WFTS.

Since 2017, the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) has issued three warnings to consumers about Legacy.

According to the NFDA, the company is an “internet middleman that holds itself out to the public as a locally owned and trusted funeral home providing low-cost cremation services,” but is actually an “unlicensed seller of funeral and cremation services with a long track record of consumer fraud and abuse.”

In 2017, the association called the company “a scandal-ridden middleman that collects payments from consumers for cremation services and then outsources all of the work to funeral homes.”

In 2019, Robert Cavin of Minnesota complained to Colorado licensing authorities in 2019, alleging that Legacy provided his grandmother with a estimate of $995 to cremate her husband, then later demanded $1,600. “I can verify this as I was listening to the call and transcribing details,” Cavin told Colorado officials. “This felt like a scam to take advantage of someone not in their right mind … I called back to ask for more details … (they) told me to “go f— myself” and hung up … How are you still allowing this person to operate?”

In an unsigned letter to Colorado officials, the company denied the allegations and said “this is not how any individual employed by Legacy acts or conducts themselves.”

The Iowa Capital Dispatch reached Damiano at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fl., but Damiano hung up after the reporter identified himself. He did not respond to subsequent calls.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.