On May 11, Jack Zawadski lost his best friend, recent husband and romantic partner of 52 years, Robert Huskey.
The two were childhood friends in Chicago in the 1940s, but reconnected and fell in love 20 years later, after a mutual friend urged them to meet up. The two spent their lives moving around the country, teaching special education classes and running an apple orchard, before retiring in Picayune, Mississippi, 20 years ago.
And when gay marriage was legalized in 2015, the couple became the first gay couple to tie the knot in Hancock County.
“Our entire worlds revolved around each other,” Zawadski, 83, tells PEOPLE. “I loved Bobby very much and he loved me too, he was my best friend.
“Losing him was like losing an arm — so to have his death thrown in the trash? It’s really hard.”
When Huskey, 86, fell extremely ill just prior to his death from congestive heart failure, Zawadski’s great nephew, John Gaspari, began making arrangements at Picayune Funeral Home, where he was assured everything would be “taken care of.”
“John did everything, he set up everything because I was at the point of no return, I was losing my best friend” says Zawadski. “But he then told me that [the funeral home] refused to bury Bob because we were a gay couple, we were ‘People of that kind.’ ”
Zawadski, along with Gaspari, are now suing the funeral home for “intentional, malicious and outrageous actions in breaching their agreement to provide transportation and related cremation and funeral services for a grieving family’s departed loved one, knowingly leaving the decedent’s body without proper storage for hours while the family scrambled to find alternative arrangements,” according to the lawsuit.
Further, the suit claims that the funeral home refused to transport Huskey’s body and “otherwise breached their agreements upon learning that the deceased was a gay man whose next of kin was his lawful husband, communicating only that they did not ‘Deal with their kind.’ ”
“I was so angry,” says Zawadski. “So angry and hurt. In all of our years together, we had never experienced something this negative.
“What kind of people are these to deny cremation? We have to be better than this.”
Henrietta Brewer, owner and manager of Picayune Funeral Home, refutes claims that her business refused to cremate Huskey’s remains and says they filed court papers denying the lawsuit’s allegations.
“We definitely did not refuse a gay man,” Brewer tells PEOPLE. “We have had several gay funerals since we’ve owned the funeral home, we have gay men buried in our cemeteries.
“There was no contract. there was never a contract with them — in fact, until we were served the papers, we had never heard of those two people.”
“Ms. Brewer denies she ever spoke the words she does not ‘deal with their kind to anyone, including anyone at the nursing home where Plaintiffs’ decedent, Bob Huskey, passed away,” Brewer’s attorney Silas McCharen tells PEOPLE in a statement. “Picayune Funeral Home has never refused to provide funeral services based on sexual orientation and did not refuse to provide services to this family.”
No court date has been set, but Zawadski’s attorney Beth Littrell hopes the case will “send a message that anti-gay discrimination is intolerable in a civilized society.”
“I think this is one of the only ways that he is able to feel like his partner who was so dishonored after death is able to have a positive impact by changing if not laws, hearts and minds,” Littrell tells PEOPLE. “Even though they were legally married they, in their last moments together and in the darkest time of Jack’s life, he is the victim of anti-gay discrimination.
“We are hoping for justice for Jack and John.”
Zawadski says he hopes the lawsuit “will make sure that other people don’t go through something like this.”
“If I had known the state of Mississippi was this bad, we would have never settled here,” he says. “I just hope that people start realizing there are people like us and we are human too and we care for each other. This negativity the state has against us has got to quit.”
Zawadski says he was approached by a woman at the gas station on Thursday, and asked if he was the man involved in the lawsuit against the funeral home.
“I said, ‘Yes I am,’ ” recounts Zawadski. “And she told me, ‘If you thought so much of him, why didn’t you just die with him?’ “