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Lawsuit: Man’s body mutilated to fit into coffin

Dakota William Powell

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the name of French Funerals and Cremations president Tom Antram.

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Dakota William Powell was a promising young man who took his own life while struggling with mental illness.

When his loved ones got to his funeral, they discovered something horrific.

A lawsuit filed in state District Court in Albuquerque last week alleges that French Funerals and Cremations broke Dakota Powell’s legs to fit him into his coffin. Dakota was 6-foot-4, but mourners immediately noticed that the coffin was not even 6 feet long.

President Tom Antram, company majority owner Chet Stewart and a former employee are named as defendants.

Antram told the Journal that an investigation conducted by the funeral home’s insurance company found no wrongdoing.

Marc Powell had made arrangements to have his son’s body wrapped in linen and not embalmed or prepared for public viewing, per traditional Jewish custom. The body was to be placed in a simple pine coffin.

The funeral for the 26-year-old was held in French’s chapel in August 2017.

“Defendant Antram and (an employee) met the family members and other mourners at the entrance to the chapel, and as the group approached the pine coffin at the front of the chapel, family members began to become emotional and exclaim that there must be some mistake as the coffin was much too short to contain Dakota Powell,” the lawsuit says.

The coffin, according to the lawsuit, was “noticeably and significantly less than six feet long.”

“To the horror of Marc and Sally Powell (Dakota’s grandmother), and the other family members and mourners assembled, (a funeral home employee) callously stated that they had to disfigure and mutilate Dakota Powell’s body by ‘breaking his legs’ so he would fit in the coffin,” the lawsuit says. The employee “even made a breaking gesture with her hands as she made this callous statement.”

The lawsuit, filed by Dakota’s father and grandmother, also says the funeral home didn’t honor the family’s wishes and prepared the body for public viewing. The Powells are asking for compensatory and punitive damages, as well as damages for pain, suffering and mental anguish.

“The Powell family has been able to eventually reconcile themselves to Dakota’s mental illness and ultimate suicide, but have been increasingly haunted by French’s decision to desecrate their beloved Dakota’s body by breaking his legs and stuffing him into a coffin that was much too small for his tall frame, and to callously ignore specific instructions to prepare Dakota’s body in a traditional Jewish fashion,” Marc Powell’s attorney, Ben Silva, said in a statement to the Journal.

“The Powells had hoped to sit down with French’s staff to understand how this could have happened. Instead, French refused to meet with the Powells and claimed that none of this tragic series of events ever happened and that they bore no responsibility at all.”

Silva said Marc Powell will donate all monetary awards to the Dakota Tree Project, a nonprofit that plants trees in Albuquerque’s poorest neighborhoods in Dakota’s honor.

Antram told the Journal on Tuesday that Dakota’s family sent a letter to the funeral home in December demanding a cash payout. He said French’s insurance company conducted an investigation and found no fault by the funeral home. He said the company has not been served with the lawsuit and didn’t want to comment on pending litigation.

“We look forward to this process and making sure it reaches a resolution that is justified,” Antram said.

Dakota loved glass blowing and was working toward opening his own studio and retail space, his obituary says. He was born in Albuquerque, and majored in business and economics at Colorado College.

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