Arkansas Funeral Home Owners Face Criminal Charges

The Associated Press reports that three men were arrested and charged this week following the discovery earlier this year of cadavers in a closed funeral home.  The owners of the funeral home, LeRoy Wood, age 86, and his son Ron Wood, age 61, were charged along with the general manager of the funeral home, Edward Snow. 

From the AP story:

According to the affidavit filed in support of the criminal charges, Snow and other employees "began placing bodies wherever they could find a space for them in room temperature. Bodies were stacked on top of one another, on pallets, on the washer and dryer and on every available space they could find. Coffee cans with deodorizer were placed next to bodies to help with the odor in the room."

Employees told police that the Woods refused to stop taking bodies despite the lack of space, according to the affidavit. The employees said there was an unusually high volume of death calls in January, but that the owners added to the back-up by refusing to perform services until they were paid in full.

According to the affidavit, the owners authorized services on some bodies once the investigation began. Investigators removed 31 bodies and 22 sets of cremated remains. The condition of 13 of those bodies was believed to qualify for charges of abuse of a corpse.

The State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors investigated after a former employee complained. The board's records show LeRoy Wood surrendered his funeral director license, his crematory license and his funeral establishment license after signing a consent agreement with the board in early February that also required him to pay a $10,000 fine and refund payments to families that had not received adequate services.

The Arkansas statute defining "abuse of a corpse" is based on Model Penal Code statute 250.10.  The statute reads:

(a) A person commits abuse of a corpse if, except as authorized by law, he or she knowingly:

(1) Disinters, removes, dissects, or mutilates a corpse; or
(2)(A) Physically mistreats or conceals a corpse in a manner offensive to a person of reasonable sensibilities.
(B) A person who conceals a corpse in a manner offensive to a person of reasonable sensibilities that results in the corpse remaining concealed is continuing in a course of conduct under § 5-1-109(e)(1)(B).
(C)(i) As used in this section, “in a manner offensive to a person of reasonable sensibilities” means in a manner that is outside the normal practices of handling or disposing of a corpse.
(ii) “In a manner offensive to a person of reasonable sensibilities” includes without limitation the dismembering, submerging, or burning of a corpse.
 
(b) Abuse of a corpse is a Class C felony.
 
The statute includes broad language that would appear to address the treatment described by the AP story.  Although the defendants will surely argue the statute is unconstitutionally vague, The Supreme Court of Arkansas enforced the application of the statute in 1995 against a woman who disposed of the remains of her stillborn child in a dumpster.
 
[W]e cannot conclude that our statute is unconstitutionally vague, as it conveys fair and sufficient warning when measured by common understanding. Particularly, the words “physically” and “mistreats” are commonly understood. The word “physical” is defined as “of or relating to the body,” and the term “mistreat” as “to treat badly: abuse.” See Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary 760, 887 (1988).

Dougan v. State, 322 Ark. 384, 392, 912 S.W.2d 400, 404 (1995).

In Arkansas, each Class C felony is punishable by a prison term no less than three years and no more than ten years. Each of the three men, if convicted on all 13 counts, therefore faces prison terms ranging from 39 to 130 years. Civil lawsuits are also apparently being filed by the kin of some of the deceased.

Tanya Marsh


Not a nuisance, but perhaps a taboo?

Common law is very clear that cemeteries are not a nuisance per se.  This means that as long as it is permitted by applicable zoning and other land use laws, neighbors cannot block the development of a cemetery.  A proposed 100,000 plot cemetery on 60 acres in San Ramon, California, however, raises an interesting issue.  Many of the residents in the surrounding area are "are natives of China and India who believe that living near a cemetery — even one that would not be visible from their homes — is taboo." 

“We really are affected mentally and psychologically,” said Angappa Murali, a software engineer at Hitachi Data Systems who is from India. “Most of us are immigrants,” he said of his neighbors. “We still have spiritual connections.”

In light of the cultural prohibitions on living near a graveyard shared by many in the San Ramon community, should courts re-evaluate the common law rule? 

It is important to note that nobody particularly enjoys living next to a graveyard.  Since Roman times, graves have generally been located on the outskirts of populated areas.  Although the focus of European Christian burial was in churchyards, a tradition which was followed in colonial times and is still followed in many parts of the United States, American cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco have been exiling cemeteries for centuries.  The common law rule that cemeteries (and funeral homes) are not a per se nuisance is not because of their wide acceptance by neighbors.  In 1917, the Supreme Court of Michigan considered an effort by neighbors to halt the construction of a funeral home in Lansing:

We think it requires no deep research in psychology to reach the conclusion that a constant reminder of death has a depressing influence upon the normal person.  Cheerful surroundings are conducive to recovery for one suffering from disease, and cheerful surroundings are conducive to the maintenance of vigorous health in the normal person.  Mental depression, horror, and dread lower the vitality, rendering one more susceptible to disease, and reduce the power of resistance.  … [This] is a matter of common knowledge.  The constant going and coming of the hearse … the not infrequent taking in and out of dead bodies; the occasional funeral, with its mourners and funeral airs; … the unknown dead in the morgue; … the thought of autopsies of embalming; the dread, or horror, or thought, that the dead are or may be lying in the house next door, a morgue; the dread of communicable disease, not well founded, as we have seen, but nevertheless present in the mind of the normal layman – all of these are conducive to depression of the normal person; each of these a constant reminder of mortality.

Saier v. Joy, 164 N.W. 507 (Mich. 1917).  The neighbors in the modern San Ramon case offer similar objections:

Jay Yao, who emigrated from China, is the chief organizer of the cemetery opponents and says funerals would cast a pall on the community. “They will be forcing kids to see funeral processions,” said Mr. Yao, a vice president of quantitative research at Morgan Stanley Capital International. “Children didn’t do something wrong — why do they have to see it at such an early age?”

Community officials in San Ramon appear to think that the "Chinese and Indian residents with spiritual or cultural objections" to the cemetery are raising new issues.  They are not.  As the Supreme Court of Michigan so colorfully opined in 1917, everyone finds cemeteries depressing.

Tanya Marsh


Thomas Jefferson's Obelisk: Desecration and Restoration

Tj 2

After enduring over 150 years of wear and tear, Thomas Jefferson’s personally designed tombstone will be restored to its original state.

Long before his passing in 1826, Thomas Jefferson contemplated his inevitable death.  As a boy, he studied beneath the shade of a favorite oak tree with his closest friend Dabney Carr.  The boys promised each other that the survivor would bury the other at the oak’s foot.  When Carr died in 1773, Jefferson followed through on his burial agreement, burying Carr beneath the favorite oak and beginning the Monticello Graveyard.  Carr was only thirty years old.

Later, Jefferson devised explicit instructions for his own burial alongside his childhood friend at Monticello.  Jefferson’s document stated that he desired “a plain die of cube of 3 f[eet] without any moldings, surmounted by an Obelisk of 6 f[oot] height” and provided a sketch of the grave marker. As for the epitaph, Jefferson dictated that on the obelisk’s face ‘the following inscription, & not a word more” should appear:

Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia

Jefferson explained "because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered."  Yet, scholars finding Jefferson’s choice to exclude his presidency from the list perplexing.

Unnamed

In 1833, Jefferson’s grave marker was erected at Monticello according to his instructions.  However, the marker quickly became the subject of vandalism as visitors chipped off pieces of the stone for souvenirs.  Thus, the marker was moved into the house at Monticello for protection.

Years later, Congress passed a joint resolution providing funding for a new monument and the original marker left Monticello permanently.  Jefferson’s descendants decided to donate the original obelisk to the University of Missouri.  The university seemed appropriate because not only was it the first public university in Louisiana Purchase Territory, which Jefferson was instrumental in acquiring, but the university was modeled after Jefferson’s University of Virginia.

On July 4, 1885, the obelisk was officially dedicated to the university, but the marble slab bearing Jefferson’s epitaph remains in disrepair today.  Now, the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute will endeavor to restore the stone, but estimates the project will take at least a year to complete.  After, the stone will return to its permanent display at the University of Missouri.  In the meantime, the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Exhibits Central has created two replicas, one of which will be used for educational presentations.

Tj

One final note: grave desecration is illegal in many states today, including Virginia where Jefferson’s replacement grave marker is located.  See Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-127 (making grave desecration a Class 6 felony).

Evelyn Norton


Death at a Funeral: Dishonoring a Woman's Life at Her Own Funeral

On October 9, 2014, a woman died suddenly of a brain aneurysm at the young age of 32. Her family held an open-casket funeral for her over a month later. However, the body that lay in the casket was not the Jennifer Gable that many of her loved ones would recognize.

Jennifer Gable had been living as a transgender woman for at least seven years. She legally changed her name from Geoffrey to Jennifer in 2007. Upon her death, her family cut her hair and dressed her in a suit as her body was displayed to family and friends at funeral services. Additionally, her obituary only referred to Geoffrey Gable and spoke of “his” marriage to a woman, educational background, and love of sports.

Some news coverage of this event warns us to register our final wishes with an attorney. One member of the media asks, “Is that something you should have to put in your will? Like, please bury me as I am?”

However, United States courts have refused to recognize property rights in dead bodies. As such, we are not given the opportunity to dictate disposition of our bodies in a legally-binding, testamentary document in the same way that we might be able to with a vintage car or a beloved jewelry collection. This becomes a particularly relevant problem for transgender persons whose families may be unaccepting. Furthermore, these issues do not often reach a court of law because, simply put, there is no return on the investment so litigants are not willing to pay for the cost of legal action.

Crissy Dixon


Mineral Interests in Cemeteries

The nature of burial rights is an interesting and complicated property question.  Burial rights are more like an easement or a license than a fee simple interest in real estate.  But I'd never considered whether mineral rights may be sold in cemeteries, and whether that would be inconsistent with burial rights.  An interesting short piece on that topic can be found here.

Tanya Marsh


Former Boston Funeral Director Faces 278 Charges

Being a funeral director normally carries with it an obligation to be licensed properly in the state where the director is practicing. For example, the good residents of Boston can only be licensed as funeral directors if they possess a high school education (or its equivalent) and have passed an approved funeral-directing course. For more information about these requirements and others that are statutorily imposed, click here.

The O’Donnell & Mulry Funeral Home in Boston brings special attention to this issue, as a recent police investigation revealed human bodies and cremated remains that were entrusted to the funeral home, in a storage unit in a nearby town. Twelve bodies were found and identified, but next of kin have only been located for nine of these bodies.

Furthermore, Joseph V. O’Donnell is accused of the following: stealing from thirty-one clients who pre-paid for funerals, performing 201 illegal funerals as an unlicensed funeral director, embezzlement, larceny, forgery, and returning a false death certificate.

Statutory regulations exist to provide for the safety and protection of consumers. Planning a funeral for a loved one is often the most emotionally trying time of a person’s life, and it is easy to take advantage of consumers who are confused, distraught, and often in a hurry. An argument can be made for more strict regulation of funeral directors and funeral establishments in order to prevent undue influence and duress on this vulnerable class of consumers. At the very least, it seems that thorough enforcement of existing regulations is a problem that has yet to be resolved.

Read the full article at Boston.com.

Crissy Dixon


Roll Over Beethoven: Monty Python Tops British Funeral Charts

A press release on November 21 revealed that Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is the most requested song at British funerals. The announcement came from the UK’s largest funeral director, The Co-Operative Funeralcare which conducted research based on over 30,000 funerals.  Traditional pieces such as “The Lord is My Shepherd” and Elgar’s “Nimrod” from Enigma Variations remain popular but 84% of UK funeral directors say that requests for hymns and classical pieces are quickly declining. Among the popular songs to top the list were Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic, and Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” Joining Monty Python under a category labeled “Humor” were Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” and Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire.” Several songs associated with popular “football” teams also topped the list.

Have the Brits lost their minds? According to David Collingwood, The Co-Operative Funeralcare’s Operations Director, the results may be a reflection of the increasing personalization in modern funerals. This phenomenon is not unique to the UK. In July of this year, the Huffington Post published an article on the rise of personalized “fun funerals” in the U.S. Among other things, the article addressed funeral-based reality TV shows, tombstone shaped cookies, and morticians who perform magic acts. In September, mourners remembered the legendary comedienne Joan Rivers with a “huge showbiz funeral” complete with moving eulogies, x-rated jokes, and Broadway performances, including the showtune “Hey, Big Spender” from Sweet Charity. Fellow comedienne Whoopi Goldberg described the funeral as a “truly funny, truly loving send-off by folks who loved her…funny and deeply moving, much like her.” A recent conversation with my own mother revealed that instead of a funeral, she would like to be remembered with a red wine toast against a backdrop of Janis Joplin songs.

It is often said that funerals are for the living, not the dead. But a move away from traditional funeral services may temper this distinction and also may help the grieving process. Friends and family can have more creative freedom to remember the deceased as they lived and how they would want to be remembered. In addition to reducing the somberness of a funeral, a more customized ceremony could be more effective at providing families with the closure they need.

It’s hard to imagine “Great Balls of Fire” becoming the next funeral anthem in the U.S., but like the Brits we seem to be looking on the bright side of life. For the funeral world it looks like “fun” is the new black. 

Kayla Frederickson


Disinterring a Founding Family of NYC

More people are buried in Queens than are living there now. This is a story of some of the departed.

Precisely how many will not be known, though, until a bulldozer breaks ground early next year for a 42-story apartment tower in Long Island City, on the site of what was once a cemetery, owned by a family that settled there 350 years ago.

The Van Alst family cemetery was rediscovered only a little more than a decade ago, after the city decided to rezone the mostly industrial tract for residential, retail and office development.

After two developers, H & R Real Estate Investment Trust and Tishman Speyer, announced in June that they would build on the site, they were required by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which issues guidelines for archaeological work, to make a good-faith effort to find any descendants of the last known member of the family, Harry Van Alst, who lived in Queens in 1925.

Read the rest of the article at the New York Times.

Tanya Marsh


Grief and 21st Century Funerals

An interesting article in The Daily Dot asks "What drive-thru funerals say about death in America."  It notes that Americans are interested in a quick, convenient way to process grief, by streaming funerals and drive-thru viewings, but concludes that:

It's a way to conveniently package grief, just like a livestream or an online memorial that will slowly fall away into pixels once people lose interest.  Yet, grief, which is one of the most intense and enduring emotions humans can experience, tends to defy boundaries. Is it really advisable to tell people that mourning can be accomplished through glass in three minutes, followed by a swipe of the pen on a guestbook?

Check it out.

h/t Brandon Heffinger

Tanya Marsh


England's First Long Barrow in 5,500 years

Barrow outside

What’s old is new again.

A Wiltshire man, Tim Daw, recently finished England’s first long barrow burial mound in over 5,500 years. It is about 80 miles west and slightly south of London The barrow is a hollow, artificial hill about 160 feet long. Inside, ornate stonework contains four large chambers, each with 55 niches for storing cremains. Daw is charging £1,200 (aprox. $1,960 USD) to lease a family niche which is able to hold four or five urns. An individual lease runs £400 ($650 USD) and a lease for two is £600 ($980 USD).

English burial law only allows Daw to offer 99 year leases. In 1977, England’s Secretary of State for the Environment issued Local Authorities’ Cemeteries Order 1977. Article 10, subsection 2 of the Order prevents granting exclusive burial rights for more than 100 years. When the right expires, however, it may be extended for another 100 years. Further, the limitation does not apply to multiple or non-exclusive burial rights.

Britain’s Neolithic elite were typiclaly buried in long barrows. Neolithic Britons built around 300 barrows from 4000 to 600 AD. Barrows died out with the advent of Christianity. Stonehenge, where Daw works, is surrounded by barrows.

The Barrow cost about £200,000 ($320,000 USD) and took about a year to complete. Daw used traditional materials and construction. Construction began with a traditional ceremony including cutting the ground with an antler and drinking mead.

Daw built the barrow in response to the decline of Christian burials. The barrow does not contain any religious symbols and is “for those of any religion or none.” He hopes it brings together “traditional” elements in a manner that is “relevant for today.”

Several patrons have already leased niches.

For more, head to:

The barrow’s website and Facebook group

A local news story

Another local news story

BBC news stories on the planninggroundbreakingconstruction, and completion of the barrow.

Daniel Gibson