ROCKFORD (WREX) — A Rockford family contacted 13 Investigates for help, saying they were in a bitter custody battle for their baby’s ashes. That fight was between the mother, the alleged father and a local funeral home.
The mother argued she has sole rights to her late son and says his birth certificate proves it. But the funeral home refused to release the ashes to her.
Orion Ezekiel Heinzeroth spent just 11 hours on Earth. Born on January 12, 2019 at just 24 weeks, the premature baby’s lungs and heart weren’t strong enough to keep him alive.
“He coded about eight times before I had to make the hardest decision in my life to take him off the life support,” said his mother, Rachel Heinzeroth.
But that difficult decision for Rachel was just the beginning of her heartbreak.
“Wednesday of his services I get a call from Fitzgerald in the morning and they said, ‘Well the father wants half the ashes,'” Rachel said.
Rachel says there is no father, at least not legally, because she’s the only one on the birth certificate. It’s a document she says the father refused to sign.
“He didn’t want to acknowledge him as his kid, he didn’t want to sign the birth certificate. He didn’t want to meet him when he was alive, he didn’t want to meet him when he was dead. He didn’t want anything to do with him,” she said.
She believes because of that, she holds the rights to Orion’s ashes. But Fitzgerald Funeral Home, which handled Orion’s services, wouldn’t release them.
At attorney for the funeral home, Ryan Gailey, released a statement to 13 Investigates, saying in part, “…The individual alleging to be the father is listed on the death certificate, assisted with the funeral arrangements, and signed the cremation authorization form. Based on this, Fitzgerald Funeral Home took the dispute seriously…”
As a result, Gailey says the funeral home is following the “Illinois Disposition of Remains Act.” That law says if there is a dispute between two parents over a child’s remains, a court must decide what happens to them.
But with no father listed on the child’s birth certificate, is he a legal parent? And does the law apply?
The Illinois Department of Public Health says no.
It released this statement to 13 Investigates saying: “The deceased child’s mother controls the disposition of remains. If the father wants legal rights, he would need a court order.”
“I truthfully have not seen a case like this,” said Jeff Parness, an NIU professor and parentage law expert.
Parness said the law doesn’t specifically say what to do if one person claiming to be the parent isn’t on the birth certificate.
“The law says surviving competent parents and the question is, how is that defined?” he said.
Pareness said the funeral home is likely holding on to the ashes because it’s trying to protect itself from a lawsuit.
“Their position is, well we’ve got a person who says she’s not the only surviving parent and if we release the ashes to her, we’re gonna be in trouble with him. But if we don’t release the ashes to her, we’re in trouble with her. So they’re in between a rock and a hard place.”
“I just want to bring my baby’s ashes home. So he can be at home where he belongs,” Rachel said.
Just a few hours before 13 Investigates aired this story, we learned Orion is coming home. The attorney for Fitzgerald Funeral Home told us they reached a resolution with the families and Rachel is receiving the ashes in whole. The family brought Orion home on Wednesday night.
Here is video of the moment Rachel and her mother received baby Orion’s ashes.