The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Funeral home featured on ‘Best Funeral Ever’ reality show accused of losing ashes and letting bodies decompose

Golden Gate Funeral Home owner and director John Beckwith Jr. looks through a window during a double funeral in Dallas on July 30, 2020. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

The December 2013 episode of TLC’s “Best Funeral Ever” opened with the service of a man who, for many of his 51 years, loved football. So mourners, dressed in sports jerseys, gathered on a football field.

A preacher in referee stripes called the deceased man a “most valuable player,” and then mourners lined up to spoon the man’s ashes into a football — which the widow kicked through a field goal post.

The production was the work of the Dallas-based Golden Gate Funeral Home, where families have paid to have services resembling western movies, boxing matches and barbecues. It was the subject of a TLC reality show that aired in 2013 and 2014 and featured some of the funeral home’s most over-the-top services, including one in which people dressed as breakfast foods while eggs and pancakes were served from the altar.

“Here, we celebrate — and that’s what makes us different from any other funeral home in the nation,” John Beckwith Jr., Golden Gate Funeral Home’s chief executive, told NBC’s “Megyn Kelly Today” in 2018.

While the funeral home has built a reputation for going to extremes to make its services memorable, more than a dozen former customers are alleging in new lawsuits that Golden Gate failed to meet basic funeral standards. In some cases, the lawsuits allege, the funeral home never gave families their loved ones’ remains — and in other cases, gave them the wrong ashes.

Other customers say the funeral home presented them with bodies that had not been properly preserved.

“Some families … were forced to view their loved ones in a grotesque state of decomposition,” Ryan Sellers, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement announcing the lawsuits.

Seventeen plaintiffs have filed suits in Texas, alleging Beckwith and his funeral home were negligent in handling their family members’ remains.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Sellers said his firm has helped clients file at least 20 complaints of misconduct with the Texas Funeral Service Commission, the state agency that regulates funeral homes.

A lawyer representing the funeral home did not directly comment on the allegations but in a statement to The Post said the family-owned business has prided itself on quality service for generations.

“For the owners and employees of Golden Gate, nothing matters more than providing compassionate and caring guidance for the bereaved, and respectful and dignified care for their loved ones,” attorney Tonika Brown said.

“We strive to diligently address any concerns regarding our services, and we work diligently to comply with the standards and regulations that apply to the funeral home profession,” Brown added. “Our goal is to always provide the quality funeral home services our community has come to expect from us.”

In an April report on Spectrum News 1, two former Golden Gate employees accused the funeral home of keeping decomposing corpses in unrefrigerated areas. One of the employees provided photos of what he said were bodies in an unrefrigerated moving truck. The photos were taken in the summer of 2020, as many funeral homes were managing a period of strain due to the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

The other employee said that when there was no room in the freezer, the funeral home simply left the corpses anywhere. “Bodies are everywhere, stored places they shouldn’t,” she told the news outlet.

Beckwith denied the accusations, telling Spectrum News 1: “I’ve never used a U-Haul for storage. I’m telling you that didn’t happen here.” He also accused the employee who took the photos of staging them.

Legal complaints against Golden Gate claim there were additional missteps. In June 2020, Jackie Carlisle hired the funeral home to embalm and prepare her mother’s body for a wake, according to a lawsuit Carlisle filed in January. But when she arrived at the funeral home, Golden Gate staff presented her with the wrong body, the lawsuit alleges.

After an hour, employees located Carlisle’s mother’s body, the lawsuit states. Still in a hospital gown, the body was not made-up for the ceremony and had “partially decomposed,” documents add.

Carlisle alleges she was again left alone. With the wake approaching, she tried to prepare the body herself.

“Jackie used the make up and perfume she carried in her purse to help remedy [her mother’s] appearance and odor,” the lawsuit states.

Her mother’s body, displayed at the wake, was “so unsightly that attendees felt compelled to take a picture,” according to the lawsuit.

In another lawsuit filed last month, a man alleges that he viewed his father in an “unsightly and disturbing condition” following his death in January 2021. Funeral home employees told the man his father’s body needed to “thaw,” the lawsuit says.

Other lawsuits detail allegations of Golden Gate Funeral Home mishandling cremations. The children of a man who died in July 2020 say in a lawsuit that after hiring Golden Gate to cremate their father, the funeral home never delivered his ashes.

During a service for Virginia Palmer Rankin following her death in December 2019, Golden Gate Funeral Home played a slide show of another person as mourners paid their respects, according to a lawsuit filed by her children. The children also said they believe they were given the wrong ashes, as Golden Gate did not identify the remains with the proper documentation, according to their lawsuit.

The family told Spectrum News 1 they believe Golden Gate’s mishandling of remains is a result of it taking on too much business, as well as “greed.”

One of the siblings told the TV station: “We don’t know how many families they have done this to.”