TV show on Fort Worth mortuary canceled after bodies found

Posted Friday, Jul. 25, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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A reality TV show focused on the “soul and spice” of the Johnson Family Mortuary has been canceled as a real-life drama unfolds at the east Fort Worth funeral home.

The show, titled Good Grief, was originally scheduled to premiere Wednesday — and then pushed back to early August — on the Lifetime Network.

But then came last week’s startling discovery that eight unattended bodies — seven of them decomposing — had been found inside the mortuary, which was followed by a flurry of accusations, denials and arrests.

“The program featuring the Johnson Family Mortuary has not and will not air on Lifetime,” Les Eisner, vice president, corporate communications and publicity at Lifetime Networks, said in an email. “The allegations are deeply troubling and our thoughts and prayers go to the families affected by this situation.”

The show would have been an addition to a unique — some might say morbid — genre of funeral-themed reality television shows such as the Best Funeral Ever, which aired on the TLC Network and featured the staff at the Dallas-based Golden Gate Funeral Home, and Family Plots, which aired for four seasons on the A&E Network and featured a funeral home in California.

HBO was a trendsetter in funeral-themed programming with its long-running drama series, Six Feet Under, in the early 2000s.

The Johnson Family Mortuary show died as the family business, owned by Dondre and Rachel Hardy-Johnson and Derrick Johnson, unraveled.

On July 15, Fort Worth police were called to the mortuary after the building’s owner showed up to evict the tenants, but instead found the rotting bodies.

That same day, a defiant Dondre Johnson addressed media outside the funeral home, thanking people for all the coverage and the free advertising for an upcoming reality television show. Dondre Johnson said cameras had been following him around for the past two weeks for a show he thought might be titled The Life of an Undertaker.

“That’s great advertising because in a few days from now we’ll be on a reality show so I want all this media,” Dondre Johnson said.

Since then, Dondre Johnson, 39, and Rachel Hardy-Johnson, 35, were arrested, with each facing seven counts of abuse of a corpse. They were released from jail after posting bonds of $10,500 each.

Police have said that Derrick Johnson, Dondre’s twin brother, was not involved in the mishandling of the corpses. Members of the Johnson family could not be reached for comment.

Investigations continue

The funeral home was already under state investigation and its license was due to expire at the end of the month. The Texas Funeral Services Commission opened a new investigation after the unattended bodies were discovered.

According to arrest affidavits released Wednesday, after arriving at the funeral home at 1051 S. Handley Drive, detectives, a crime scene officer and investigators with the medical examiner’s office found:

• The odor of decaying flesh from the parking lot outside the building.

• “Insect infestation and fly pupa … present on or near the corpses.”

• The remains of two stillborn children.

• A body in a casket infested with insects and “mummified.”

According to the affidavit, Dondre Johnson told the detectives that the conditions in the mortuary “were not unusual” and that none of the bodies had been there for longer than four months.

But a detective wrote that the abuse was “retaining custody of and storing the human corpse in an unrefrigerated building instead of delivering the said human corpse for proper burial or cremation.”

‘Death has never been so lively’

Even with the funeral home closed and the show canceled, some TV websites such as The Futon Critic and TV Rage were still promoting the show, using a June news release from Liftetime Television:

“Take a step deep into the heart of Texas with the Johnson Family Mortuary! You’ve never seen a family funeral business like this one — full of spice and soul. Rachel runs the family business alongside her husband Dondre and his twin Derrick, together known as the “Undertaker Twins,” who bring life to the business of death. Working with family is never easy with drama, fights and forgiveness, but with the Johnsons, death has never been so lively.”

Critics of some of these shows have derided their premise, saying they trivialize death and dying, while other critics have opined that the shows are not reality television, because they emphasize tomfoolery to enhance their audience numbers.

John Beckwith, owner of Golden Gate Funeral Home in Dallas, said he was approached by three different production companies about the reality show. Golden Gate offers theme-based funerals, (think disco, bowling alley, barbecue), an approach his staff started long before joining the reality TV ranks.

Beckwith also has another television show called Ask the Undertaker, which is an effort to educate people about what they need to have in place before a loved one or family member dies. People have been conditioned to be sad and somber at funerals but that is not how things were always done, Beckwith said.

“There’s no reason to mourn,” Beckwith said. “This is a home-going celebration. These people are actually going to a better place. Somewhere, along the way, we picked up a different tradition.”

Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752 Twitter: @mitchmitchel3

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