“We don't refrigerate bodies that are being cremated.”
This explanation as to why police found two decomposing corpses hidden under trash bags in an unlicensed West Philadelphia funeral home seems unconvincing, to say the least. Blair Hawkins, the owner of Hawkins Funeral Service, now faces probation on three counts of abusing a corpse: two counts for this infraction, and one for storing an embalmed body in a coffin in an unventilated room. Additionally, he was fined $100,000 by the Pennsylvania State Board of Funeral Directors, and (unsurprisingly) had his funeral director’s license revoked. Just how, one wonders, could Hawkins’ excuse be a valid one?
Simply put: it’s not. Under Pennsylvania state law, bodies must be refrigerated or embalmed within 24 hours of receiving them. The families of both bodies had been told cremation had already taken place—that is, until Hawkins called the brother of Harvey Vaughan, who was supposed to have been cremated two weeks earlier, and told him that more paperwork needed to be signed before the cremation could take place. After scraping together $2,300 to pay Hawkins for the alleged cremation, Vaughan’s family cannot afford to pay for a second cremation. His body was being stored at the local morgue until arrangements could be made.
Such “immorality,” as the State Board described Hawkins’ actions, illustrates how the funeral industry owes a moral duty not just to the bodies themselves, but to those who loved the body when it was alive. The status of a dead body as “human remains” provides more legal protection than that of property (you can’t be charged with “abuse of an armchair,” for example), yet less protection than that of a living being (despite being left to decompose and covered with garbage, there can be no charge of physical abuse here). The families of the bodies entrusted to Hawkins’ care are the real victims in this situation. They could seek relief through the civil judicial system for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a tort which Pennsylvania courts have recognized as a valid claim when a loved one’s body is intentionally or recklessly mistreated (see, for example, Moffatt v. Baird Funeral Home Inc.). However, this tort often falls short from providing families with the relief many believe is suitable for the pain and suffering caused by going through the grieving process twice.
This case, along with other gruesome tales of unlicensed funeral homes, demonstrates the ambivalent legal position that the funeral industry is in. As businesses, running a smooth operation is beneficial for the well-being of the company. As a service, however, running a smooth operation is vital for the community. The industry is intensely regulated in almost every state; however, the limited remedies available to those who have been victims of Hawkins, and the arguably light sentence that he received, illustrates the uncertain approach that the law has towards the industry when that regulation fails.