Lawsuit alleges Algonquin funeral home released ashes to wrong family, never returned infant's cremated remains

For nearly five months, Georgic Byrd displayed, mourned over and spoke to an urn she believed contained the ashes of her infant daughter.

Byrd later learned the ashes in her living room were the cremated remains of another man’s mother. Compounding her shock was the realization that the woman’s son, David Hill, filed a police report alleging Byrd had stolen the ashes.

The pair resolved the misunderstanding shortly after but neither has heard from the funeral home since. Now both Byrd, of Carpentersville, and Hill, of McHenry, are suing Willow Funeral Home. The Algonquin business is accused of mistakenly releasing 72-year-old Laura Lee Hill's ashes and never returning the cremated remains belonging to Byrd's 4-month-old daughter.

“I just need justice right now because I still don’t have my daughter and I need her home,” Byrd said.

Chicago attorney Robert Shelist filed the lawsuit Nov. 18 on Byrd and Hill’s behalf. The 25-page civil complaint seeks punitive and financial damages for alleged negligence and violations of the Illinois Crematory Regulatory Act and the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.

“These two families entrusted the bodies of their dead relatives to a funeral home,” Shelist said. “It’s a sacred trust and bond, and they were promised to be given the ashes of their loved ones and that trust in their services was completely violated. It’s just tragic.”

Willow Funeral Home could not be reached for comment. The business, located at 1415 W. Algonquin Road, had not hired an attorney as of Friday, court records show. The funeral director at the time of the alleged mix-up has since died, according to an obituary on the business’ website.

“I don’t wish anybody to have to go through this ever,” David Hill said.

The situation began April 10 when the funeral home contacted Byrd and advised that her daughter’s ashes were ready for pickup, according to the lawsuit.

Byrd’s daughter, Taliyah Wright, was born prematurely by emergency C-section on Nov. 24, 2019.

A later MRI scan confirmed that Taliyah was suffering a type of newborn brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation and limited blood flow.

For the next five months, Byrd and her four other children, aged 2 to 6 years old, made trips to the intensive care unit to visit with Taliyah before her March 19 death. Devastated, Byrd signed a release authorizing Lutheran General Hospital to transport Taliyah to Willow Funeral Home for cremation.

“I’m still hurt, and I still don’t have my daughter to this day,” Byrd said.

Meanwhile, David Hill had entered into a contract with Willow Funeral Home for cremation services costing $1,947, according to the lawsuit. When he called to pick up the ashes in July, he learned they’d already been released to someone else.

“I called [the funeral home] and said, ‘Hey, I think we’re ready to do a homecoming service and we want to pick up the urn,’ and he was like, ‘You already picked it up,’ ” Hill said. “I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”

Hill said a funeral home employee was adamant that Hill’s wife authorized a relative to pick up the ashes. Reached by phone Friday, Hill’s wife said she did no such thing. When the funeral home showed Hill a receipt that included a copy of Byrd’s driver’s license, he filed a police report, afraid that someone might have stolen his mother’s ashes.

“Who in their right mind would do something like that?” Hill said.

Byrd had a portion of what she believed were her daughter’s ashes encased in necklaces for her other children. She also placed the urn among a memorial to Taliyah in their Carpentersville apartment, the mother said.

“I thought I had her,” Byrd said. “I had her on display.”

That all changed Aug. 17 when Hill contacted Byrd and she learned about the police report filed against her.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, am I going to go to jail?’ ” Byrd said.

She and Hill met that day and exchanged the ashes. They later went to the Algonquin Police Department together and withdrew the complaint against Byrd, Hill said.

“I was sad, angry because all this time I thought this person tried to steal my mom,” Hill said. “At the same time, I had compassion because maybe she just didn’t know.”

For months, COVID-19 prevented Hill from visiting his mother in the nursing home where she died from complications from Alzheimer’s disease. The memorial services he ultimately hosted over Zoom weren’t the closure he had hoped for, he said.

“I was happy to have something,” he said. “But it wasn’t what I wanted, what she deserved.”

Traumatized by the thought of having a stranger’s ashes in her home and devastated over the loss of her daughter, Byrd said she no longer can stand to look at the memorial she had set up in Taliyah’s honor.

“Still when I come down and look at it, it just doesn’t feel right because I know I still don’t have my daughter at home with me right now,” Byrd said.

Katie Smith

Katie has reported on the crime and courts beat for the Northwest Herald since 2017. She began her career with Shaw Media in 2015 at the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, where she reported on the courts, city council, the local school board, and business.