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$1.5M in prepaid funerals said safe amid investigation

SOUTH HADLEY — The William W. Ryder behind the problems at the South Hadley funeral home that bears his family’s name is not the same man that funeral directors and others who have worked with him over the years know.

That’s not meant to excuse Ryder’s behavior that led the state to suspend his funeral director’s license and shut down the family’s longtime business last Friday, but the industry practices that Ryder is accused of violating — health code violations including bodies not being properly embalmed and stored — stand in stark contract to the person they’ve come to know over the years.

Michael Ahearn, of Ahearn Funeral Home in Northampton, met Ryder some 30 years ago when Ahearn’s father helped Ryder’s father, Myron, stage funerals. That friendship grew stronger after Ahearn started his own funeral home 14 years ago and William Ryder took over the Ryder Funeral Home after his father died.

Ahearn said it was common for the two funeral directors to cover for each other during times of need and he often turned to Ryder for advice, especially during the early years of his business.

“Will’s Dad was a larger-than-life character and Will is the same way,” Ahearn said. “We would often get together to talk about the business or what a tough week we had. We understand each other because of our businesses.”

Funeral home directors and others interviewed this week either declined to discuss what changed in Ryder’s life in recent months — or they didn’t know and were hesitant to speculate — that led to the out-of-character behavior that eventually tipped off state investigators to come knocking on the door of his funeral home on Lamb Street in the South Hadley Falls section of the town.

Once there, investigators found nine bodies, some of whom were in various states of decomposition due to being improperly stored and embalmed. Ryder’s attorney has said Ryder, 53, is dealing with “significant medical issues” that required medical testing and health evaluations this week. He declined to be more specific.

“He was overwhelmed personally, professionally and medically,” said Chris Powers, a funeral director at Czelusniak Funeral Home in Northampton.

The Czelusniaks are friends of the Ryder family and were called in last week, along with Paul Phaneuf, a funeral director at ????, to help process the bodies and organize funeral arrangements that were already in progress.

Powers said many families were understandably upset and felt betrayed, as was he and the funeral home’s patriarch, Bob Czelusniak, and current owner, Jay Czelusniak. Powers describes the trio as three “pretty tough guys,” but even they shed a few tears last week.

“It shakes you to the core when something like this happens,” Powers said.

While he declines to speculate about Ryder’s personal health issues that led to last week’s state action, Ahearn said the stresses of the mortuary business can be overwhelming. Many funeral directors work in communities where they grew up, running funeral homes that are often handed down from one generation to the next. That has the benefits of name recognition and being a trusted place for families to go to when a loved one dies. But it can also be taxing emotionally for funeral directors who often help families that they knew. Ahearn estimates that he personal knows a majority of the people he buries.

“It can wear on you,” Ahearn said. “The stresses of the business can get to people.”

Like others, Marc Dupont, spokemsan for the Springfield Diocese and a South Hadley native, said he was surprised and saddened by the news last week. The Dupont family has used Ryder on numerous occassions over the years to handle arrangments for his grandfather, his parents and his wife’s parents. He recalls Ryder’s graciousness and understanding during those difficult times.

“You never felt like it was a business transaction with the Ryders,” Dupont said. “It’s extremely sad. I don’t know the circumstances that led to this, but I hope people don’t rush to judgement.”

Several interviewed said the Ryders have been heavily involved in the South Hadley community and have been a fixture there since the business began in 1953.

“Like his father, Will was devoted to South Hadley and the residents there,” said Ahearn.

In addition to sponsoring youth sports teams, scholarships for South Hadley and Granby graduates, and funding other community events, William Ryder volunteer in other capacities over the years, including as a member of South Hadley Fire District No. 1’s Prudential Committee. Three years ago, the South Hadley Parade Committee selected him for its “Irish Knights” award and he was part of the town’s marching contingent in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Holyoke.

Powers said 70-hour work weeks are not uncommon for the funeral business, where off-hour calls in the middle of the night and on weekends and holidays are simply part of the job. That’s why funeral directors have informal agreements to cover for each other during vacations, when multiple funerals are scheduled for the same day, or when other needs arise. These agreements typically take place between funeral homes from different communities because of the competition involved, Powers said.

He said Ryder had not reached out to other funeral homes in the last couple of months.

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