When Susan Stevenson-Graham read about a tax raid closing Bethea’s Funerals and Cremations, her first thought was what would happen to her brother’s ashes.
The remains of her brother Brian Stevenson were being held at the mortuary because when he died about a year ago, she wasn’t emotionally prepared to deal with finding a final resting place for him.
“I couldn’t bring myself to go get (the ashes),” Stevenson-Graham said. “They said, ‘If you’re not ready, we’ll keep them as long as you need us to.’ ”
As of Wednesday, the status of Brian Stevenson’s ashes was in limbo – a loose end in a tax enforcement action.
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On Tuesday, Kansas Department of Revenue agents and Butler and Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputies served warrants and seized cash and property to be auctioned off toward payment of a $61,598.37 tax debt.
The business was closed pending resolution of the case, and the state transferred five bodies to another mortuary for cremation. One family had to rearrange a funeral through a different company, said business owner Robert Bethea.
Bethea was meeting with KDOR officials late Wednesday to try to come up with a payment plan to deal with the tax issue and reopen his business.
A KDOR spokeswoman did not return a phone message seeking comment from the agency.
The case captured the attention of Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, who contacted the KDOR to urge a swift resolution to the situation.
She said she understands the need to collect the taxes. But, she said, “I think the state of Kansas could have done a little more due diligence in how they handled this situation.
“This is affecting people who are grieving, and it just doesn’t look good,” Finney said. “It just seems like there was no sensitivity there.”
On Tuesday, KDOR spokeswoman Rachel Whitten said the department embarked on the seizure after exhausting other means to collect the debt.
The seizure of the mortuary’s assets affected more than people who are going through the funeral process. It also affects individuals and families who have prepaid plans for services to be rendered when they or a loved one dies.
Stevenson-Graham praised Bethea’s handling of her brother’s death after he succumbed to complications of lupus at age 49.
“I know that young man (Bethea), he’s a very nice young man,” Stevenson-Graham said. “Honestly, if I had the money, I’d pay it (the tax debt) for him. He took good care of us.”
Of the situation with her brother’s ashes, she said: “It’s kind of an odd predicament to be in.
“What are they doing to return (remains) to the people they mean something to and just move forward from here?” she said.
Bethea said that although he can’t operate as a funeral home right now without violating state regulations, he was able to get some ashes returned to bereaved families on Wednesday.
Bethea said he has owned the mortuary for three years and a bookkeeping error put him in arrears on sales and withholding taxes.
He said the KDOR offered a payment plan that he accepted. He said the KDOR then altered the plan to increase the payments, and he hired a consulting firm to negotiate with the agency.
The next thing he knew, he said, agents were at his business and home seizing cash, vehicles and other assets.
He said he has drafted a proposal letter to pay off the debt.
The Bethea mortuary primarily serves the African-American and Hispanic communities in Wichita and specializes in low-cost services for families of limited means.
Finney said the loss of the business would cause problems for her constituents in minority neighborhoods in northeast Wichita.
“We don’t have enough minority-owned businesses as it is,” Finney said. “If this isn’t resolved, we’ve just lost another business and the jobs lost and the customers who’ll be harmed.”