For 52 years Jack Zawadski and Robert Huskey were partners. Jack says that, during that time, he doesn’t remember much about being the target of anti-gay discrimination.
After meeting in California in 1965, the two men tried growing apples on a Wisconsin farm and faced no anti-gay sentiment. Each of them were special education teachers for several decades and encountered no discrimination on that front either. They didn’t even face anti-gay discrimination after moving to Mississippi 20 years ago to retire and enjoy a warmer climate. They married in 2015 after the Supreme Court decision that gay couples had the right to marry and still faced no backlash.
Soon after the wedding, Robert’s health began to fail. He underwent bypass surgery but his condition continued to decline. Jack cared for his husband for as long as he could, but eventually Robert had to be placed in a nursing home where he died at age 86. Jack’s nephew, John Gaspari, helped his 82 year-old uncle deal with the loss of his lifetime partner. The Picayune Funeral Home is the only one in the county with an on-site crematory, so John made arrangements with the business to have Robert’s body picked up and cremated. However, when the time came to retrieve Robert’s body, the nursing home got a call. The funeral home noticed that Jack and Robert were married and told the nursing home that they would not be coming to collect the body because they didn’t “deal with their kind.”
Faced with the wrenching loss of his partner, Jack had to quickly find another funeral home. He and his nephew found another facility with an on-site crematory in Hattiesburg, about 90 minutes away. But because the nursing home had no morgue, they refused to hold Robert’s remains until the Hattiesburg facility could come to pick up the remains. That meant that they had to find another funeral home closer to Picayune to pick up and hold the body until it could be retrieved.
After going through the unexpected and heart wrenching experience, Jack contacted Lambda Legal, an LGBT rights and advocacy law firm based in New York, and filed a discrimination suit against the funeral home in federal court.
In a response filed in March by Silas W. McCharen, an attorney for the Picayune Funeral Home, the owners, Ted and Henrietta Brewer, deny the allegation and claim the business has never discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation. Henrietta denies ever making the remark about “their kind” and Ted claims the funeral home did not refuse to retrieve the remains.
Beth Litrell, the attorney representing Robert, is seeking unspecified compensation and punitive damages from a jury. Since there is no federal law or Mississippi state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, Litrell said the suit is relying on “other state laws that hopefully will provide a remedy for the terrible actions that happened here.”
“The essence of the claim,” Litrell said, “is that they both breached a contract and denied service at the last minute to a grieving family based on the fact that the man who had passed away was gay and was married to a man.”
As for Jack, at 82 he has assumed the unwanted role of activist. He said he isn’t looking for financial gain, but wants to ensure that others will never have to experience the pain he has gone through and the indignity visited upon his partner.
It is an irony that the name of the funeral home – Picayune – is synonymous with petty.
Source: Washington Post