PRICHARD, Ala. (WALA) -- Funeral director Joseph Bonner has been arrested on two counts of abuse of corpse following excavation of graves at Heritage Memorial Gardens cemetery in Prichard.
Capt. Paul Burch with the Mobile County Sheriff's Office said officials found burial vaults that were not properly sealed -- with standing water in the vaults and water in the caskets. They found vaults covered with less than eight inches of dirt rather than the industry standard of two feet, he said.
"What we are going to be dealing with is more so industry standard rather than law," Burch said at the cemetery Wednesday morning. "There is not a law governing some of these procedures. But I think we are on good solid ground using industry standards."
According to records from the Alabama Funeral Board, Bonner obtained a funeral director’s license in 2007 and a license as an apprentice embalmer in 2017. He was promoted to an embalmer license in March, according to those records.
Charles Perine, executive secretary of the board, told FOX10 News that his agency was assisting the law enforcement probe.
“As of right now, the criminal proceedings take precedence,” he said.
Based on the condition of the remains, and in consultation with the Mobile County District Attorney's Office, it was determined to make the arrest on the abuse of corpse charges, Burch said.
Mobile County sheriff's deputies began the process of examining graves at the Heritage Memorial Gardens Cemetery early Wednesday morning. Investigators said they had enough evidence to start digging.
There have been questions surrounding the legality of the cemetery and also allegations made about some of the graves here.
Deputies say some of the allegations include bodies being dug up and caskets being re-used and bodies not being buried where they should be or not being embalmed.
There have also been complaints about an odor coming from one of the graves.
Investigators said before the digging started that they expected to obtain some of the answers they need for their investigation.
Burch indicated that what deputies found at the cemetery Wednesday likely means more woes for Cederick McMillian, CEO of Heritage Funeral Home.
“We’re not just here. We’re working on behalf of families, at their request,” said Burch. “In my 31 years, this is definitely different.”
Sheriff Sam Cochran issued this statement: “This investigation is not about one person, it is about numerous complaints from citizens of Mobile County. We will continue our investigation and seek the truth for these families who lost their loved ones.”
Perine, of the Funeral Board, said the regulatory body gets about 60 to 70 complaints a year. It has the authority to act on those complaints or open its own probe, but he added that only a small fraction – about six to 10 a year – result in formal disciplinary charges.
In such an instance, the board holds a hearing in front of an administrative law judge or, more commonly, negotiates a settlement agreement. Punishments can include a fine, suspension of the license or outright revocation.
Investigative reporter Brendan Kirby contributed to this report.