The Connecticut Department of Public Health, the agency that oversees the funeral home industry, has laid out 11 distinct charges against the owner of Brooklawn Funeral Home and Abbey Cremation Service in Rocky Hill.
The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters spoke with a former employee of Abbey Cremation, who describes what he calls questionable practices that he witnessed while working for Luke DiMaria.
He asked that we protect his identity, so we'll call him "Dave."
Dave worked at Abbey Cremation for nearly three years, from early 2012 through October of 2014, while he was taking classes toward getting his funeral director's license.
The business advertises "$995 Direct Cremation" on billboards across Connecticut, which is a lower price than any other facility in the state.
Dave said what he witnessed there made him upset. Families were offered choices of containers for their loved one, A cardboard box cost $195, while wooden boxes were more expensive, at $500 to $775. Dave estimates that 95 percent of Abbey Cremation customers chose the less expensive option, but for those who paid more, he said, his boss typically did a 'bait and switch."
"Luke did not send them to the crematory in that alternative container. They were cremated in a cardboard box. I observed this happening at least 100 times," Dave said.
Pulling this off was simple because the families rarely accompany their loved one's remains to the crematory, he said.
Dave said that while working as an assistant, he refused to get involved, but turned the information over to the state once he officially became a funeral director.
"When I knew my license would be in jeopardy, because of this illegal practice, that was the time I decided to make a stand," Dave said.
Luke DiMaria agreed to meet with the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters and said "Dave" was a rogue employee who was the direct cause of any confusion or over billing.
"He was in charge of putting the people into the specific boxes before they went over to the crematory, and he would not attest to doing this properly and that's when I fired him,” DiMaria said.
DiMaria believes his biggest mistake was not supervising Dave as closely as he should have. He said the discrepancies came to light during an internal audit after he fired Dave.
As a result, DiMaria sent a letter of explanation and a refund check to all the families who'd paid for a wooden box during the time Dave was overseeing the container process at Abbey Cremation.
"I couldn't figure out who received the proper one and who didn't, so I offered a refund for every one of the 66 families," DiMaria said.
We reached back out to Dave after speaking with DiMaria and he said he's not surprised his former boss placed the blame on him.
Dave said another major issue relates to Abbey Cremation's Medicaid business.
Venus Freeman, of Middletown, was referred to Abbey in 2014 by Hartford Hospital, where her mother spent her final days.
"Everything was a blur at the time. It was so overwhelming," Freeman said.
At that time, the state allocated a maximum of $1,800 for funeral expenses. Venus went to Abbey for the $995 cremation, but quickly learned the state would be billed the full $1,800, for the added cost of the cardboard box and an urn for her mother's ashes.
"I did question it, but I just went along with it, because knew this had to be done," Freeman said.
Dave said DiMaria always set up the Medicaid bills to cost the full $1,800.
"I think the urn cost about $25. If you really wanted to buy it, he wouldn't even sell it on his shelves as an urn," Dave said.
DiMaria denies the urn cost him only $25.
"Not true at all. I would say to the family, there's no out-of-pocket expense for you. The state gives you an allowance, we charge $995. We can add a container and provide an urn for you and that's what we did," DiMaria said.
DiMaria admits to problems with paperwork and filing in 2013 and 2014. He said he's hired a monitor to get his records in order and his attorneys negotiated an agreement with the Department of Public Health relating to the 11 charges. He offered to pay a $25,000 fine, but the Board of Examiners for Funeral Directors turned it down.
"We came to a very fair agreement because the rest of the allegations are totally false," DiMaria said.
Dave stands by his story.
"It's shameful that someone would do that to a family," he said.
The other pending charges against DiMaria include a variety of record keeping and filing violations that came to light after Dave turned documents over to the state. The Board of Examiners is scheduled to hear the case in January and state sources confirm DiMaria could face a $25,000 fine for each violation, if they are found valid, and the board could potentially revoke his license.