Funeral Homes

A Morbid Mix-Up in West Virginia

“The mistakes just kept happening.” Alone this expression is unsettling. In the context of funeral arrangements, it assumes novel gruesomeness. On October 28, 2016, the family of deceased Madeline Yost filed a lawsuit against the now closed Bartlett-Burdett-Cox Funeral Home (B-B-C) in Kanawha County, West Virginia, alleging that the funeral home mixed up two bodies in January of this year. Peggy Bowles, Yost’s daughter, said that her mother’s dying wish was for a closed casket ceremony. In the care of B-B-C, Yost received the opposite.   

The lawsuit alleges that B-B-C confused Yost’s body with another deceased woman, Margaret Fraser. Yost was displayed in an open casket to Fraser’s friends and family. To add insult(s) to injury, Yost was wearing Fraser’s clothes, and none of the surviving Frasers noticed they were grieving over the remains of a stranger. Yost was buried in Fraser’s grave later that day.  

“Just the thought that she was buried in someone else’s grave, and that she had someone else’s clothes on, I didn’t anticipate it,” Bowles recalled. Yost was later exhumed and laid to final rest next to her husband.

Though its official website has been taken down, what remains of B-B-C’s business profile on Yelp assures clients that, “We believe creating meaningful ways to pay tribute to a loved one begins with compassion and is shaped by the understanding that each life is truly unique. For us, there is no greater responsibility than honoring and preserving the story of one’s life.” Perhaps a more fitting description of B-B-C’s approach to funeral directing would be “No guarantees.”

In addition to seeking damages, Bowles’ attorney, Russell Williams, said they want to make sure that no other families fall victim to this sort of mistake: “The goal is to hold these defendants accountable for what they’ve done, and to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else in the future.” Since B-B-C closed in May after years of declining business, it would appear that goal has fulfilled itself without any legal intervention.

Bowles probably shouldn’t hold her breath for damages, either. Collecting against a presumably fiscally insolvent funeral home that closed nearly six months ago will likely be impossible. While this experience may have been emotionally troubling for Bowles, there is no use in beating a dead horse, or a dead funeral home. Yost has been laid to final rest, and perhaps this case should follow suit.  

Emily Lagan


Oswald's Coffin Belongs to His Brother, Not Funeral Home, a Judge Rules

 

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Texas Judge Donald J. Cosby ruled that the wooden coffin that held the body of one of America’s most notorious killers – Lee Harvey Oswald- belongs to his brother and not to a Fort Worth funeral home. According to the ruling, the Baumgardner Funeral Home, owned by Allen S. Baumgardner Sr., engaged in “wrongful and wanton and malicious conduct.” This malicious conduct? Illegally concealing the existence of Oswald’s coffin from his brother Robert in order to sell the infamous killer’s coffin years later.

Lee Harvey Oswald, infamous for killing President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was buried in the coffin before it deteriorated so as to require a replacement. When the body was exhumed in 1981, and without Robert Oswald’s knowledge, the original coffin sans Oswald was transported to the Baumgardner Funeral Home, where it was intentionally concealed in the hopes of a large payout for the funeral home owners later on.

The original, however, was put up for sale in 2010 by the Baumgardner Funeral Home in Los Angeles and sold to an undisclosed bidder for $87,468. After Robert Oswald filed suit, the sale was halted and the coffin remained in storage at the Nate D. Sanders auction house.

Judge Cosby not only ordered the original coffin returned to Robert Oswald, but also ordered the funeral home and its owner to pay to Robert the sales price of the coffin, the auction house’s storage fees, and travel expenses as damages.

The brother of Lee Harvey Oswald, probably relieved to put the ordeal to rest, plans to destroy his brother’s original coffin as soon as possible, says his attorney, Gant Grimes. The ultimate concealment of the coffin caused emotional and economic loss to Robert Oswald that a Texas Judge has finally put to rest.

Amelia Lowe


When Sorry Doesn’t Cut It: Mishandling of Prearranged Funeral Funds

In 2014, the Rude Family Northwest Mortuary, located in Phoenix, Arizona, closed its doors for the last time. Over the years, the funeral home and its owner Steve Rude had developed close relationships with members of the community. When planning for her own funeral, Edith Garrity relied on Rude’s reputation—the two were members of the same church—in deciding to purchase a prearranged funeral contract from the Rude Family Northwest Mortuary. It was Garrity’s understanding that the $4,600 she paid to Rude would be held in a trust until her death. For Garrity and her family, “the thought of having that prepaid trust [was] calming.”

Their faith in Rude was not unreasonable. As does many other states, Arizona requires that “prearranged funeral agreement[s] . . . be funded by insurance or trust,” Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 32-1391.02(C), to ensure the funds are available upon the beneficiary’s death. To that end, “[a] funeral establishment or another person shall not withdraw, transfer, remove, commingle, encumber or use as collateral any monies paid to the establishment under a prearranged funeral agreement funded by trust.” Id. at 32-1391.02(C)(2). Thus, the closure of Rude’s funeral home should have had no impact on the $4,600 Garrity assumed had been placed in a trust and would be available upon her death.

But it did, and she was not alone. Following the mortuary’s closure, “state funeral board investigators say more than $112,000 was missing from more than 44 prepaid funeral trusts.” When confronted, Rude admitted that while he commingled the funds intended for trusts with the funeral home’s general expenses, he never put them to personal use. Rude also acknowledged that he did not possess the license required to collect prearranged funeral contract payments, a violation of § 32-1391.02. Rudy Thomas, the executive director of the Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, characterized Rude’s conduct as fraud.

In 2014, Rude promised that he would “make things right.” However, as of October 2016, Rude had paid back only $14,000. Although the matter was turned over to the Arizona’s Attorney General’s office, no charges have yet been filed. Arizona’s statutes governing prearranged funeral agreements are meant to protect individuals like Edith Garrity from fraud like that perpetrated by Steve Rude. But for such safeguards to be effective, enforcement is necessary. For Garrity and the countless other individuals whose end-of-life plans have been disrupted by Rude’s misconduct, sorry doesn’t cut it.

Mickey Herman


GA state law made it difficult to open Muslim funeral home

Georgia's first Muslim-owned funeral home opened in Norcross, Georgia on September 19, 2016.

Janaza Services of Georgia cannot only serve Muslims, however. The law in Georgia requires owner Abdullah Tahir Siddiqui to serve everyone regardless of religion. To follow Georgia law, Janaza is required to jump through certain hoops that Siddiqui otherwise would not choose to.

For instance, Muslims do not use caskets, but Janaza has eight on display in his showroom. Georgia law requires all funeral establishments to "maintain on the premises at each of its locations an adequate stock of funeral caskets which shall not be less than eight . . . ." O.C.G.A. § 42-18-70-(b)(3) (2010). Muslims, though, typically will wrap a body in a plain, white fabric and place it straight into the ground or sometimes use a simple wooden box.

Further, Muslims do not embalm their dead, but Janaza's funeral director, Ahmad Rashad, is trained to embalm. Georgia law requires all funeral establishments to be operated by licensed funeral directors. O.C.G.A. § 43-18-71(a) (2010). In Georgia, all funeral directors must be licensed to embalm. O.C.G.A. § 43-18-41(c) (2010). Embalming involves draining the blood from a person's body and then replacing the blood with certain fluids and water that preserve the body. This is what gives the dead the appearance that they are sleeping.

Janaza has an embalming room, required under O.C.G.A. § 43-18-70(b)(2) (2010), but Siddiqui does not use the room for embalming. Instead, he uses it for the ritual washing of the body, an important distinction between Muslim and Christian funeral rituals. 

Muslims have the communal obligation of properly caring for the dead. They believe that the dead can hear and feel what is happening to them as they are prepared for burial. Even during the washing, they keep the body carefully covered and clean it multiple times with soap and water.

For the past 12 years, Siddiqui has used Christian funeral homes around Atlanta to wash and prepare dead bodies, but it was difficult because the Christian funeral homes did not understand Muslim rituals. “I feel always pain in my heart, because as a Muslim we have the feeling that even though it’s a dead body, it has a due respect,” Siddiqui said. Significantly, Muslim men cannot handle or wash the bodies of women unless they are married.

Having Janaza, a Muslim-owned funeral home, eases the burden of the entire Muslim community living in the Atlanta area. Siddiqui embraced this responsibility because he was already involved in Muslim-funeral preparation. Rashad plans to charge customers $1,000 for the basic service as well as offer financial assistance for families who cannot afford that cost. Most important to Rashad is not the money but serving his community, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

Sarah Saint


Oops, a Corpse! A Tale of Death, Garages, and the Law

On September 9, 2015, eleven days after the death of Reverend Anton Godfrey, those tasked with cleaning out his garage were in for a rude awakening when they uncovered four human bodies "in various states of decomposition," along with a box of cremated human remains and a (still yet-to-be-identified) bag of organs.  The family of one of the deceased, Brigitte Godfrey, is now suing Living Waters, the funeral home they paid $1,800 to cremate and "take care of" their loved one's body, on eight counts of negligence.  At least one of the other recovered bodies had also been previously released to Living Waters.

Per the Illinois Department of Financial Regulation, the reverend had been fined and served on multiple prior occasions to "cease and desist his in-home mortuary practices," and for running an "unlicensed practice of funeral directing and embalming."  By all accounts, however, Living Waters funeral home was in full compliance with the necessary requirements and regulations.  So how did we get here?

Presumably, the bodies released to Living Waters were entrusted to the reverend.  The Illinois Funeral Directors and Embalmers Licensing Code requires all licensed persons be "employed by or contracted with a fixed place of practice or establishment devoted to the care and preparation for burial or for the transportation of deceased human bodies."  Unlicensed persons may help in the transportation of remains "to assist in the removal," but only under "immediate, direct supervision of a licensee…"

To protect public interest and concern in the preparation, care, and final disposition of the deceased, Illinois law is particularly detailed when it comes to the practice of funeral directing.  Illinois law provides many avenues under which criminal action may be pursued against an individual or individuals who desecrate a grave or improperly disinter or abuse a corpse, but here, the individual in question is dead and the action is being pursued against the funeral home under a civil action for the tort of negligence.  The Illinois board of examiners in has in the past justly suspended the licenses of the funeral directors responsible for the employee, a decision upheld by the court in Biggs v. Dep't of Registration & Educ., 388 N.E.2d 1099 (App. Ct. 1979).  This sets the stage for a successful negligence action against Living Waters.

In other words…if you ask me, Living Waters's chances of prevailing are dead on arrival.

Jilliann Sexton


A Furry Friend to Comfort the Grieving

13116460_875324819263332_362816585251506194_oAs anyone who has lost someone close to them knows, the days following a loved one’s death can be an emotional rollercoaster. Between the visitation, funeral, and burial services, there are numerous events following a death that can emotionally taxing. One funeral home in White Plains, New York has found a way to help ease the pain and emotional strife of the deceased's grieving relatives and friends. Ballard-Durand Funeral and Cremation Services has enlisted the help of Lulu, a sweet and lovable goldendoodle therapy dog, to attend funeral services and interact with grieving loved ones, with the hopes that some of the sadness and pain will be eased, even if just for a short while. Matt Florillo, the owner of Ballard-Duran, has said that Lulu is incredibly in-tune with the emotions of people around her. She has the ability to know who needs her the most, and will sit by those loved ones during funeral services for as long as they need. Lulu also knows how to “pray” during the funeral – crossing her paws and bowing her head – a trick that Florillo says helps ease the tension surrounding such a sad day. Lulu is available for any and all events throughout the grieving process.

While many news outlets such as the Huffington Post and the Today Show have taken a particular interest in Lulu and her adorable trick, a number of funeral homes across the country have also utilized therapy dogs to comfort grieving family members. Three funeral homes in Ohio employ therapy dogs Magic, Dempsey, and Lily to provide “quiet comfort” to loved ones left behind. A variety of breeds can be used for therapy dogs as Magic is Portuguese Water Dog, Dempsey is a Bernese Mountain Dog and Lily seems to be a Bichon Frise. While the breed, size, and age of the dogs all differ, they have one thing in common – their ability to comfort those who need it the most.

I have just become a first-time dog owner myself, and it is almost uncanny how aware dogs are of the emotions of the people surrounding them. I can only imagine how comforting it must be to have a furry friend nearby when dealing with such a sad time in one’s life. There seems to be a growing number of funeral homes that offer therapy dogs, and I can see why this is a popular trend. Of course, there is always the option to not have a therapy dog at a funeral service, but for those who need comfort the most, it seems a furry friend can be a loveable source of relief.

Kelsey Mellan


Should Funeral Directors Take Selfies?

The selfie: the twenty-first century self-portrait born from the union of technology and vanity. Fortified by social media, what started as a teenage fad soon shattered generational barriers and grew into a global obsession that knows no bounds. If you have a smartphone and the dexterity to hold it just above your head at a forty-five-degree angle, you can take a selfie. With a few more taps, that selfie can be uploaded to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, ready for all the world to see and react.

But what happens when the digital and death collide? In September, a bereaved Rose Molina accused Texas funeral director David L. Jones of taking a selfie as her cousin’s casket was loaded into its hearse. Molina first noticed something was off when she saw Jones lift his phone into the selfie position. “You could see that he had it kind of angled, you know. You have it positioned in a certain way to catch the background.” Molina confronted Jones, who assured her he was just adjusting his tie. Molina wasn’t convinced.

14657410_1841995936031088_4779706428501616463_nWith a little digital digging on Jones’ Facebook page, Molina disinterred a collection of selfies he had taken in front of caskets and hearses. In one selfie that shows Molina in a red bow tie standing in front of an empty hearse, a Facebook user commented: “Looking ready to take on the world and win!!!!” Juxtaposed against the hearse’s inherent indication of loss, the post is rich with callous irony.  

After the finding, Molina told a Houston TV station that the incident “tainted” her cousin’s funeral, and she intends to file a complaint with state officials. Kyle Smith, a staff attorney for the Texas Funeral Services Commission (TFSC), told the New York Post that Jones had been licensed as a funeral director since December 1, 2011, and had no previous complaints against him.

According to Smith, if TFCS were to find Jones guilty of unprofessional conduct, he could face a fine up to $5,000. TFCS will not launch an investigation until an official complaint is filed.

Is Jones' conduct unprofessional? Today, the answer is pretty clearly "yes." Taking selfies of a family's deceased relative's casket without the family's consent is an obvious "no-no" for funeral directors. But would Jones' conduct be unprofessional if it occurred one hundred years ago? In previous centuries, post-mortem photography was commonplace in American culture. Though undoubtedly insensitive to Molina and her grief-stricken relatives, Jones’ selfies evidence a level of comfort wholly antithetical to modern impressions of death. If the selfie obsession is capable of spreading acceptance of death, then perhaps these twenty-first century self-portraits have more to offer than appears at face value.   

Emily Lagan


Funeral Home Mistake Leads to Cremation of Wrong Body

Over one hundred mourners viewed Val-Jean McDonald's body at her funeral at Union Baptist Church in Harlem, New York.  Her children thought she looked different than she had in life but rationalized that her cancer, final days spent in a hospital bed, and the embalming process had altered appearance.  Her grandchildren claimed that the woman in the coffin was not their grandmother.  The following day the family attended Ms. McDonald’s cremation at Woodlawn Cemetery.  Six days later McCall’s Bronxwood Funeral Home contacted the McDonald family and informed them that they had made a mistake.  Ms. McDonald’s grandchildren had been correct: Val-Jean McDonald was not in the coffin that day and her body had not been cremated, in fact the woman in the coffin was Annie Pearl Little.

Annie Pearl Little’s son, Donald Little, was informed of this tragic mistake on the day of his mother’s funeral.  The manager at McCall’s told him that they would have a closed casket because his mother got cremated.  He was told the mistake was made because “the other lady looked like your mother.”  Annie Pearl Little was to be buried with her husband, a Korean War Veteran who died in 2015 and was buried at Calverton National Cemetery, but that was no longer a possibility.  The Little family does not believe in cremation so cremation of Mrs. Little’s remains was never an option.  Since learning of the cremation, Mr. Little has experienced bad dreams about his mother being burned up and has visited a therapist multiple times.

Mr. Little plans to sue McCall’s Bronxwood Funeral Home for breaching his right of sepulcher.  New York courts have found that the right of sepulcher is the legal right of the surviving next of kin to find solace in comfort in the ritual of burial.  In Melfi v. Mount Sinai Hospital the New York appellate court found that for a right of sepulcher claim to accrue there must be interference with the next of kin’s immediate possession of the decedent’s body and the interference has caused mental anguish.  While Mr. Little’s claim appears to meet this standard, the McDonald family may not because they ultimately were able to cremate Ms. McDonald’s body as they intended.  It is unclear whether McCall’s faces any disciplinary action from the New York agencies that regulate the funeral industry. 

Elliott Harry


When Funeral Homes Don’t Do Their Job, Who Is Left To Pick Up The Pieces?

“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.

Charley Connor


Food as comfort: N.J. bill would end ban on refreshments at funeral homes

Would you like a coffee to go with your peppermint? Mourners in New Jersey will finally be able to enjoy food and other refreshments from the comfort of their local funeral homes. For decades, New Jersey funeral homes have been legally prevented from serving food and drink in funeral establishments. Sponsored by Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin (D., Middlesex), the pending legislation will lift the ban and leave Pennsylvania as the only state prohibiting refreshments in funeral homes.

The purpose behind the bill is to provide additional comfort to mourners attending viewings, wakes, or funerals at a funeral home. As the deputy director of the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association, Adam Guziejewski fully backs the legislation. Apparently, many funeral organizers and mourners in New Jersey have requested food or drink at such events, and Guziejewski has previously had to turn them away.

The law banning hors d’oeuvre in funeral homes in New Jersey was presumably enacted to protect the public health and keep food away from embalmed bodies. But the coming change signifies a move away from seeing bodies as unclean. In keeping with increasingly modern views on death, New Jersey mourners and the legislature need not fear cross-contamination between a dead body and any foodstuffs. Since 48 other states have enacted laws that allow food in funeral homes, New Jersey’s law should not cause any huge problems for funeral directors and mourners alike.

New Jersey, although late to the party, is not in bad company. New York and Massachusetts recently lifted bans disallowing food in funeral homes. In many funeral homes throughout the country, receptions or wakes are held in separate rooms from both the viewing room and the embalming room. New York's old-school opponents to serving food in funeral homes fear crumbs, losing business to event spaces, and lack of dignity for the dead. However, in other cultures, food is an integral part of providing comfort and feeding crowds of mourners. At the end of the day, New Jersey is overturning a ban that was perpetuated by naysayers. In practice, fears of crumbs and contamination of food by bodies are just that: fears.

Amelia Lowe