Originally created 03/05/02

Ex-undertaker blames bills for body backlog



JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Things were never supposed to go so far. But money was short and the bills just stacked up.

So did the bodies.

And Lewis J. Howell, the small, gaunt undertaker who stockpiled 42 decaying corpses at his Morning Glory funeral home, became the silent star of one of Jacksonville's most horrific melodramas. Even when reporters and TV cameras followed his 1988 arrest, canceled funeral license and prison sentence, Mr. Howell barely said a word in public. Now he says people had the wrong idea about him.

"I tried to bury as many as I could," Mr. Howell said last week, attributing his grisly backlog to the hazards of running a small business. "I got so far behind and so down ... I lost a lot (financially), and a lot of people didn't pay me anything."

In a relaxed interview at his former funeral home, Mr. Howell gave his most complete public explanation of the scandal that closed his business and held northeast Florida in repulsed fascination 14 years ago.

The gray-haired 67-year-old, who returned to locals' memories because of the ongoing crematory scandal in Noble, Ga., said his first mistake was taking a City Hall contract to bury indigent people.

"I didn't make that much money," Mr. Howell said, explaining how a $450 burial fee was nibbled away by expenses: wooden casket; concrete liner; $50 for a cemetery plot; clothes from Main Street thrift stores to make the dead presentable.

When it was all done, he said, "I might have had $25 or $30 left." That tiny margin disappeared when Mr. Howell defaulted on a Small Business Administration loan and the federal agency began garnisheeing his city payments in 1984.

Mr. Howell took a night job as a hospital security guard, but said he kept slipping into debt.

Mr. Howell was not always forthcoming. Asked about burying bodies two to a casket, he said only, "I might have done that," although investigators in 1988 exhumed three Morning Glory caskets holding two to three bodies each in a pauper's cemetery.

Mr. Howell disputed statements by investigators that bodies at his business had been dead as long as eight years, saying he had corpses that were a year or two old that had been held at length by the medical examiner's office. Mr. Howell said they arrived frozen, but then thawed and were too old to properly embalm.

Mr. Howell served 11 weeks in a minimum-security prison for collecting fees for three funerals he didn't perform, and worked as a janitor after that.

Today, he's a deliveryman for Pizza Hut.

His old funeral home is a church, leased about five months ago. The church, the second to open there since the home closed, is considering opening a thrift shop, Mr. Howell said.

Two closet-sized rooms where several bodies were kept are storage space for doors and other equipment. A third room is the minister's office.

Mr. Howell, who started working in funeral homes in 1959, said some old friends in the business have asked him about renewing his embalmer's license.

"I don't even think about that," he said.