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

Is It Time to Start Opening New Funeral Homes?

The baby boomers are at it again, and this time some members of the funeral home industry are anticipating the effects of this aging generation according to a Chicago Tribune article posted October 19, 2015.  Despite the fact that funeral homes have been struggling to stay in business for the past ten years (there were 21,528 funeral homes in 2004 and only 19,391 in 2014) two Chicago business partners are planning to open a new funeral home in a Chicago neighborhood in late 2015 or early 2016.  

Their space will be unique.  Instead of the large square foot funeral home that some might be accustomed to visiting, these business partners plan to open a small space that will not have a visitation chapel, and will not have enough space for preparation or cremation (both will be contracted off-site).  This business model is catering to the “seventy percent of families planning funerals that do not need the large funeral home or the overhead” that comes with the large scale funerals.  Instead, the business partners plan to find churches, people’s homes, or other places to gather.  Overall, this practice will allow them to cut costs and overhead, which will then be passed along to the families requiring funeral services.  

The high cost of funeral services is a problem.  The Funeral Consumers Alliance recently released a study revealing the wide range of prices and the lack of disclosure of those prices.  In the 1980s, the Federal Trade Commission enacted the “Funeral Rule,” which requires funeral homes to disclose prices on the phone or in-person.  In these disclosures, people learn that funeral services can be itemized, in an al la carte fashion, or there may be packages available.  They will also learn that there is a non-waivable fee for funeral services availability and arrangements.  I think these Chicago business partners are on to something.  In recognizing that people often can’t afford, or don’t need, grandiose funeral services, this Chicago team is offering a lower-overhead alternative, and a personable option where a family can choose to have a service at a recognizable place, rather than at the funeral home.  Perhaps this will be the model of the future, as larger funeral homes continue to struggle to stay in business, but the need for a funeral home in a community remains.  

Taylor Ey

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle?

On July 11, 2009 the Cook County (Illinois) Sheriff alleged that four workers at Burr Oak cemetery dug up more than 200 graves and dumped the bodies into unmarked mass graves in order to resell the plots. Records indicated that 140,000-147,000 people were buried at Burr Oak. However, the cemetery only had space for a maximum 130,000 graves, and some areas had never been used for burials. The cemetery director and workers involved were charged with desecration of human remains.

We as Americans find something inherently wrong with the thought of grave recycling. This likely has to do with how we envision a proper burial. As Americans, we envision the idea of a proper burial as a single person occupying a gravesite for eternity. Going along with this idea of perpetuity, we have developed methods, such as embalming and vaults, to slow down the decomposition process in hopes of preserving our bodies “forever.”

The workers of Burr Oak may have done this out of greed or may have done this out of necessity, but one fact that cannot be ignored is this uniquely American way of burial poses significant problems for cemeteries. Cemeteries have a finite amount of land in which to bury human remains. Once they run out of grave plots to sell they no longer make revenue that was once used for maintenance. With no available funds, the cemetery will eventually go into disrepair and will no longer be a place noticeably memorializing the dead.

This case involving a nationally recognized cemetery may be a good starting point to launch a discussion on grave recycling. The pushback from Americans will certainly be strong given the public condemnation and criminal convictions of the workers at Burr Oak, but the fact that we will eventually run out of land to bury our loved ones cannot be ignored forever.

Jordan Ballard