Rob Carpenter did a double-take on his way into his New Port Richey Dunkin’ Donuts. But there it was, straddling two parking spots: a hearse, with the front window down, back curtains drawn and a flag-draped coffin on display.
He took video, snapped a photo and then confronted the funeral home workers when they returned, coffee and a bag of doughnuts in hand.
Carpenter, whose own father served this country in the military, described his confrontation with the driver.
“I’m like, ‘Is this really a body in here?’ and he says, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘So you have a dead soldier in the back of your hearse and you’re stopping to get coffee?’ And he didn’t say anything.”
Carpenter said the men didn’t seem at all remorseful. So, he sent his video and photo to the local group, Veteran’s Warriors.
“It was very upsetting and very disrespectful to this solider and their family,” Carpenter said.
Lauren Price, who is the head of Veteran Warriors, posted the photo on Facebook and it went viral.
“None of our brothers or sisters deserve to be an afterthought,” she said. “And if it’s an imposition to transfer one of our brothers or sisters to their final rest, then the person who’s doing that transporting should be in a different business.”
Inside the hot hearse was the body of Ltc. Jesse Coleman, who died at age 84. He was a soldier who served one tour in Korea, two in Vietnam and was awarded numerous medals.
Coleman’s body was on the way from Clearwater’s Veteran’s Funeral Care to Lecanto for his funeral service.
Funeral home owner Jim Rudolph is sickened by the news.
“To us, it’s a big deal,” he said. “We are proud of what we do. We love our customers.”
Rudolph said most of his employees are either veterans or the children of veterans. Even these two drivers, he said, are sons of veterans. The drivers have worked for the funeral home for several years. The two men are brothers in their 70s with stellar records. Families often call to praise their services, Rudolph said.
But, they should have known better, he said. Protocol is to drive straight from the funeral home to the service.
“When you’re in a loaded car, you should leave, you should be coffeed up,” he said. “Do everything you need to do and drive really ceremoniously.”
Even if there was an emergency – and there was not – one of the drivers should have stayed with the body. And the curtains should have been closed in the back so that the coffin was concealed.
Rudolph said he considered suspending the two drivers, one of whom is a funeral director. In the end, though, Rudolph couldn’t get past this. He fired the men when they returned to work. He said the men were heartbroken and extremely remorseful.
“They were good employee and didn’t want to go out like this,” Rudolph said. “In this business, you can’t have a redo, if you tarnish someone’s memory.”
Rudolph said the family, however, was surprisingly forgiving and did not want the men to lose their jobs. They actually praised the men’s work at the funeral and said it was “beautiful.”
Meanwhile, plans are underway to bury Coleman in the Arlington National Cemetery.
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