Better late than never not true for Warren Funeral Chapel

Thursday, August 7, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:40 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 4, 2009

It is a television script waiting for an ending.

I really enjoy cops-and-courts shows, especially when the trailers start with, "Straight from the headlines, with a cops and courts twist!" Art imitating life is always fun, watching how screen writers manipulate the story by changing names to protect the innocent. Then there are the "life imitates art" dramas that seem to play out in our own backyards, with better twists.

Here in Columbia, life imitating art is taking a few pages from one of the cops-and-courts shows in which a mortuary mishandled corpses, improperly disposed of bodies and dumped the dearly departed in a mass grave, all while suffering major financial problems.

You know the story by now. The Warrens have been a pillar in our community, loved by those who had money and those who did not. They gave their time and efforts to afford everyone a burial or cremation. Unfortunately, when it came time to pay the bills, the Warrens could not and bankruptcies were filed. The problems multiplied.

Fast forward to 2008; the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, the cops and the district attorney's office began investigating the Warren Funeral Chapels. Inspectors and investigators removed improperly stored bodies and body parts.

The attorney general's office asked the court to stop the Warrens from continuing business while forensic teams work to identify the remains. There will be DNA testing. The investigation continues. Rumors fly.

Kathy Johnson is the grieving daughter who seeks only justice. As the attorney general's office continued to investigate, Johnson filed a civil lawsuit claiming that the chapel had mishandled her mother's funeral arrangements and the location of her remains is unknown. Others may join her action alleging the mishandling of departed loved ones.

There is a media feeding frenzy. The Warrens correctly said nothing while Johnson sought out the reporters. Her voice will be on the evening news and in the papers. Her grieving will be on our collective minds. We will empathize with her plight. She has the advantage.

Now for the cops and courts twist. Mary Ratliff, the president of the Missouri and Columbia chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the "celeb" in this story, organized a fundraiser to help the Warrens with their increasing financial difficulties. Her good will was prompted by the Warrens' continued support of the black community of mid-Missouri. The NAACP and Ratliff's actions were honorable.

Ratliff's reputation for protecting community and supporting those who have helped smooth the paths of those in pain and need is among the finest. However, she avoided reporters before the fundraiser, taking refuge behind a lectern. Not a good thing.

In politics, we talk about reputation and choosing your battles wisely. Sometimes supporting the underdog is a good thing. Sometimes it backfires. Sometimes a wait-and-see position is much better than jumping in the fray, especially when controversy can ruin a hard-earned and justified reputation. In politics, reputation is everything.

Ratliff may have chosen the wrong battle or entered too late. The NAACP's fundraiser should have been done years ago, when the Warrens' bankruptcies were first revealed, not when the scrutiny of the cops, the attorney general's office and the court of public opinion is in full session. Ratliff's thoughts were in the right place, her timing stinks.

Ratliff needs to tread lightly. She must be a strong voice of concern and support for the Warrens who indeed supported the community for these many years. But Ratliff must also be a stronger voice for the Johnsons and others who may have far greater losses than a business. They all lost a loved one. Maybe twice.

My family and I fully support the central Missouri families involved in this time of uncertainty and grief, and indeed take this matter with utmost concern. We also support the continued efforts of the NAACP in fighting for justice. We pray that justice is found.

David Rosman is a business and political communications consultant, professional speaker and instructor at Columbia College. He welcomes your comments at


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