The door to the garage on West Hagert Street in Strawberry Mansion had been locked for months - until Tuesday, when it stood open, a terrible stench emanating from inside.

Two of the neighbors on the block smelled the odor, saw the open door, and walked in to investigate. They knew the garage belonged to the shuttered funeral home around the corner, Powell Mortuary Services. They had figured the garage had long been emptied out.

Then they saw the long cardboard boxes, stacked on top of each other on a table in the middle of the garage. They saw the coffin sitting in the corner. They gagged on that terrible smell. And they opened one of the boxes. Inside was a body wrapped in a white sheet.

Police would eventually pull three severely decomposed corpses from the garage. They said the director of the funeral home around the corner, Janet Powell Dailey, told police she was aware of the bodies in the garage.

Dailey, who sat on a stoop outside the garage on the 2600 block of West Hagert as the bodies were loaded into a van belonging to another funeral home, declined to comment when approached by a cluster of reporters.

A source said she told investigators she moved the corpses into the garage on Monday because she wanted the odor out of her funeral home.

The source, however, doubted the timing of the bodies' removal. It was more likely that the bodies had been in the garage several days, the source said. One of the deceased had been dead since July.

Police on Monday declined to release the identities of the deceased. It's customary for police to withhold names pending family notification.

Neighbors said Dailey and her mother were well-known in the neighborhood and had buried many of their relatives.

They said they were shocked by the discovery, and described Dailey as a "good woman" who helped those who could not afford funeral services.

"I feel sorry for the families and their loved ones," said Susan Cosby. But, she added, "I have nothing bad to say about her."

Powell Mortuary Services, at 2432 N. 27th St., has been in Dailey's family for decades. The building, however, changed hands in a sheriff's sale in 2005. The family continued operating the business at the location.

The funeral home's state license, however, expired in 2012, records show.

Dailey could not be reached for comment.

Police and neighbors said the funeral home had been closed for some time.

According to state records, Dailey has a valid funeral director's license that expires in February.

In March, the property was sold to Brian Garris Sr. of Smyrna, Del. Garris, president of Garris Bros. Funeral Home in Philadelphia, hung up on a reporter when asked about the property.

On Monday, the odor on the block was palpable as agents from Central Detectives worked on the blocked-off the street, and neighbors gathered to watch the activity.

No charges were immediately filed, but investigators said their probe was not yet finished.

awhelan@philly.com610-313-8112@aubreyjwhelan