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Keith A. Ridley IV, 32, operator of the Ridley Funeral Establishment, had just reached the end of a routine burial at Suitland’s Cedar Hill Cemetery Feb. 4 when he was interrupted.

Once the dead man’s family had left the graveyard, Investigator Paul Kurgan, of the D.C. Police Department’s Environmental Crimes Unit, and Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) Supervisory Investigator Phoebea Queen-Addison pounced. Careful not to interrupt the funeral, they waited until Ridley’s work was done to slap him with a notice to discontinue business activity. Then Kurgan followed Ridley back into the District and impounded his hearse.

Within days, two local television stations had turned the story into what passes in D.C. for a tabloid sensation: Important News About a Mortician Cops Say You Should Avoid! It was quite a fall for the young entrepreneur, whose success had been heralded in a Washington Post business profile only four years before. CNN picked up one of the local TV broadcasts, and Ridley had to spend a weekend down in rural Virginia consoling an elderly relative upset by the report.

Tales of morticians running afoul of the law inspire the worst kinds of images—cannibalism, necrophilia, The Evil Dead. But the charges against Ridley are more Ralph Nader than Edgar Allan Poe: According to the DCRA, his corporation doesn’t have a licensed funeral director on its board, he has never obtained a funeral establishment license, and his home office isn’t zoned to be a funeral home. That kind of alleged malfeasance wouldn’t quite pull ’em in for the midnight show at the local drive-in.

Ridley says that such bureacratic hair-splitting only ends up hurting the poor families he helps. Those families don’t care who has what certificate, he argues—they’re far more concerned about finding a funeral home that offers prices they can afford. Ridley says that other funeral homes charge upward of $4,000, whereas his prices hover just above $1,000.

“The only crime we’ve committed is just trying to help some families that don’t have anything,” he says. Ridley claims—incorrectly, it turns out—that not one of his customers has ever had a problem with his services. He says his Feb. 4 cease-and-desist order was the result of the age-old story of big business trying to run out the little guy.

“You got a group of people that are angry because we’re undercutting their business,” he says. “So they’ll do whatever they can to drive us out of business. It’s the good ol’ boys network. It’s the ‘funeral cartel.’” Ridley says that the Funeral Directors Board—a public-private arm of DCRA that currently consists of three representatives from large local funeral homes—is hellbent on putting an end to his competitive prices.

But Betty Comer, acting chair of the Funeral Directors Board, says the panel Ridley dismisses is about regulating, not racketeering. “The board sits there to do certain things,” she says. “One is to license all apprentices and funeral directors, and the other is to field complaints. We act as a legislative arm of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. But this board does not bring charges against anyone. The public brings the charges, and the board reacts to those charges. To say that the board is bringing charges is a lie. We are not a police department; we’re a licensing board.”

Comer’s version of the story comports a lot better with that of the folks at DCRA, who claim that the cheapness of Ridley’s services comes at a very serious cost to the dignity of the dearly departed. And yet Ridley’s contention that he’s being muscled out suggests that his story’s a little more complex than the ghoulish TV reports.

In March 1997, Larry Ellerbe cried at his own funeral.xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Ellerbe’s family had donated his corneas to the Eye Bank when he died. But, according to his sister, since Ridley hadn’t prepared Ellerbe’s body properly, embalming fluid dripped from beneath his eyelids as he lay in his casket at Ward Memorial A.M.E. Church in Central Northeast.

“He looked deformed,” sister Vera Edmunds says. His body was bloated, she says, because Ridley had overfilled it with embalming fluid. “I would not have known it was my brother had I not known it was his funeral. His jaw was on his shoulder, his hands were swollen, and his face was twisted.”

Edmunds, a 49-year-old program support assistant for NASA, says the whole experience was a nightmare. Ridley’s efforts to stop the corpse’s tears ended up delaying the funeral for almost an hour, Edmunds says. And even the casket her brother was buried in was beat-up and scratched—certainly not the one she’d paid for, Edmunds says.

“He shouldn’t take advantage of people,” Edmunds says. “I was trying to put my brother away as best I could. [Ridley’s actions that day are] something it’s hard to forgive a person for. I’m praying that my brother’s soul has gone on to heaven and that that was just a shell.” She wants her money back. Ridley was unavailable for comment on Edmunds’ allegations.

Queen-Addison, who’s been with DCRA for 28 years, says that experiences like Edmunds’ illustrate the necessity for the funeral directors licensing process. “The law states that when you operate a funeral establishment, you have to have a funeral director’s license,” Queen-Addison says. “If you are a corporation, one of the officers of the corporation has to hold a D.C. funeral director’s license. And no one in his corporation is a licensed funeral director.”

Ridley acknowledges that he doesn’t have a license and has yet to complete his classes in mortuary science at the University of the District of Columbia. But he insists that the morticians who do the actual dirty work for his company are properly trained and licensed—though he refuses to give their names, even to DCRA, for fear that they’ll suffer repercussions from the “funeral mafia.”

DCRA also maintains that Ridley’s home serves as his business headquarters—which means that he’s “operating in a zone that doesn’t permit such business,” according to Queen-Addison. Sgt. Shakir T. Muslim, supervisor of the Environmental Crimes Unit, says that Investigator Kurgan has been working with Queen-Addison because embalming fluid, while “not a hazardous material, should be dealt with by trained people. A lot of times embalming fluid is used by drug dealers to make PCP.”

Muslim refuses to comment on a DCRA source who reports that the Environmental Crimes Unit has been investigating whether Ridley has disposed of embalming fluid or human waste improperly at his Mississippi Avenue SE property, a charge Ridley emphatically denies—”on a stack of Bibles, on my grandmother’s grave.” Ridley says that no cadavers have been in his abode, which serves only as his administrative center. He says, “When we need to conduct business, clients prefer when we come to their homes.”

Ridley says that the complaints about his business’ shortcomings—its lack of a funeral director’s license, its homelessness, the accusations of occasional mishaps—have come about because, “like most black businesses, you have to piecemeal.” Of course, being endearingly scrappy is one thing when you’re selling candy door to door, quite another when you’re dealing with dead bodies.

Shirley Waugh, a 60-year-old retired Environmental Protection Agency employee, doesn’t mind the freelance nature of Ridley’s efforts. When Waugh’s 91-year-old mother died two years ago this month, a florist friend recommended Ridley. Waugh called three or four other funeral homes to hear other prices—”Any time I shop, whether it’s for storm doors or mirrors or whatever, I shop around,” Waugh says—and there was no comparison.

But it wasn’t just that Ridley’s price was right, according to Waugh. “He’s 100 percent perfect, excellent, or however you want to put it,” she says. “He still calls me to see if there’s anything he can do, to check in on me. He called me Mothers’ Day, he called me on Valentine’s Day.” When Waugh’s aunt died last fall at the age of 98, there was no question that Ridley would again get the family business. “We were all shocked to hear” that the city was trying to shut him down, she says.

“All of the other black-owned [funeral] businesses started like I did, with nothing,” Ridley says of the skimpy infrastructure that necessitates his personalized retailing. “But now they got their Cadillacs, their Mercedes, and their Jaguars, and they forgot where they came from.”

Ridley says other funeral directors’ success-induced amnesia manifests itself not only in trying to drum him out of business, but also an acute insensitivity to the community. “We’ve buried babies for no money,” Ridley says. “We’ve served the community. For children under 3, we request no fee. Some of these ‘cartel’ funeral homes, I’ve seen them take a 1-year-old baby and charge $1,000. You shouldn’t charge for that. That’s a service of the community. Where’s your compassion?”

Born in Virginia, Ridley is short, soft-spoken, and smooth. Like a certain other beleaguered Southerner, he exudes compassion—signing his letters and leaving answering-machine messages that conclude “with trusted sincerity, Keith Ridley IV.” He maintains that the poorer communities of Washington, D.C., need him, and that all of his current troubles come from the Funeral Directors Board’s powerful connections.

“None of this was a problem when I started in ’92,” Ridley says. Then, “the control board came in and cut the burial assistance program out” of the District budget in 1995. At one time, Ridley says, the city had a fund of anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million dollars in financial aid so poor people could bury their dead appropriately. The end of the burial assistance program has forced many mourners of modest means to look for bargain deals. “The city doesn’t have any money for anybody who has lost a relative who’s poor,” Ridley argues. “Some of them come to the doors and all they have is $500.”

But Ridley’s generosity—to the tax man, at least—is also in dispute. On Thursday, Feb. 25, he was indicted by a federal grand jury on 26 tax-related charges, having allegedly made $500,000 in false tax refund claims between 1994 and 1997.

And Arnice McCoy, a 43-year-old food service worker at the Smithsonian Institution, has recently complained to DCRA that Ridley swindled her out of money for the funeral of her 20-year-old son, Reginald Allison, who was shot in September 1997.

“He told me that his services were only $1,500 complete,” McCoy says. “But in the end he charged me $3,057.54, ’cause he said he did an autopsy and special preparations, what he called ‘restorative corrections.’ But my son wasn’t messed up like that. He didn’t need any of that….I want my money.”

With that many funeral dirges playing for his business, you can see how Ridley would want to look to a mysterious morticians’ cartel for explanation. His business has been shut down, and his legal expenses are piling up: Last week, two judges held hearings on charges against Ridley—one on the tax accusations, the other on the notice to discontinue business activity.

According to Queen-Addison, her investigations into Ridley’s practices have been completed and handed off to city attorneys at the office of the Corporation Counsel—where they’re preparing cases against Ridley in both the civil and criminal divisions. Any or all of these legal machinations could put the final nail in the Ridley Funeral Establishment’s coffin.CP