Mishandled bodies, mixed-up remains prompt tougher funeral home regulations

Until this year, one state didn’t even require funeral home directors to be licensed.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) signs bills into law to bring more comprehensive guidelines into place for funeral facilities Friday, May 24, 2024, during a ceremony outside the Governor’s mansion in downtown Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

This story was first published by Stateline.

The headlines were the stuff of nightmares.

One Colorado funeral home owner let the body of a woman decompose for two years in a hearse parked outside a house he rented, while hoarding the cremated remains of dozens of others inside.

Last year, authorities discovered nearly 200 improperly stored bodies at another Colorado funeral home after receiving an odor complaint from neighbors. Investigators later learned that the funeral home had sent fake ashes to families that had paid for cremation services.

The incidents, which led to criminal charges, sparked public outrage and traumatized families already coping with grief. But they also highlighted the state’s lax regulation of the funeral industry.

For 40 years, Colorado had some of the nation’s most lenient rules for funeral homes. It was the only state where a professional license wasn’t required to be a funeral director. That changed this year.

Amid nationwide workforce challenges, some states have looked to make it easier to work in funeral homes and crematoriums. But after grisly incidents at some facilities, lawmakers in Colorado, Illinois and Michigan have sought to tighten control over this essential but often overlooked industry.

“It was just, ‘We have to do something. We have to fix this problem,’” said Colorado state Rep. Brianna Titone, a Democrat who was among the bipartisan sponsors of a new law tightening funeral home regulation.

With the grief these families went through, it was like they died again. … That trust was broken on a sacred thing.

– Colorado state Rep. Brianna Titone on abuses in funeral homes

People just assume funeral homes are safe and clean, she said, and that the workers embalming, cremating and burying the dead are doing so with care.

“With the grief these families went through, it was like they died again. And I don’t think a lot of people think about it that way until something like this happens,” Titone said. “That trust was broken on a sacred thing.”

One Michigan lawmaker is trying to change state regulations to ensure bodies are refrigerated as they await burial or cremation. The effort follows discoveries of unrefrigerated bodies decomposing in a Flint funeral home’s garage and a Detroit funeral home storing more than 50 infant and fetal remains without families’ permission.

“When a loved one dies, we deserve to know that their remains will be treated with the utmost respect,” Democratic state Sen. Kevin Hertel wrote in a local newspaper opinion piece on the legislation he sponsored. “As we grapple with grief and trauma, the last thing we should worry about is that a parent, sibling, spouse or child who has passed is neglected in death.”

Hertel did not respond to requests for comment. His legislation has not advanced.

Funeral Aid Is Available — But Untapped — in Many States

In Colorado, one law passed in 2022 expands the state’s ability to inspect funeral homes and crematories. Another one passed this year requires funeral directors, embalmers and cremationists to be licensed by the state — they must obtain certain academic degrees or have enough professional experience or certain industry certifications.

“It’s a huge deal,” said Faith Haug, the chair of the mortuary science program at Arapahoe Community College, Colorado’s only accredited program.

Haug, who holds professional licenses in several other states, was surprised to learn that none was required when she moved to the Centennial State a decade ago.

“When I first moved here, it was a little insulting,” she said, noting that people with extensive education and experience were treated the same under the law as those with none.

While even the state’s funeral industry supported the legislation this year, it did raise concerns about retaining existing workers who haven’t had to obtain professional credentials before.

Beginning in 2027, the law requires that funeral directors complete an accredited educational program, pass a national board exam and have work experience.

But the law does give existing funeral directors several options to obtain provisional licensure, including passing national exams or having 4,000 hours of documented work experience.

“The biggest concern is just workforce disruption,” Haug said. “If you don’t have different paths to licensure, the fear was that the workforce would essentially collapse.”

A tight labor market has pushed some states to expand eligibility for licensed funeral workers. For example, Missouri lawmakers in recent years have sought to expand licensure, which currently requires passing an exam. Proposed legislation would allow workers who have completed an approved apprenticeship to become licensed. A bill passed the state House but did not make it out of the Senate before the end of this session.

“It’s not easy getting people in the profession,” said Chris Farmer, general counsel for the National Funeral Directors Association.

While he said he understands the urge to regulate in some cases, he said all industries include bad actors: “Even in the most stringent states, somebody’s going to do something bad. You can’t prevent it.”

California Legalizes Human Composting

Recently, state legislatures have been busy passing measures on new practices such as human composting and so-called water cremation.

Farmer noted that funeral directors perform some 2.4 million funerals each year — and the vast majority of them never result in headlines.

“Unfortunately, it is a reactive situation,” he said. “Funeral service only gets their attention when something goes wrong.”

That was certainly the case in Illinois.

A local coroner last year uncovered inconsistencies with cremated remains that dated back years. Authorities said at least 80 families around the country received the wrong remains — some of which had to be exhumed from a national cemetery.

“We found that there were families that were impacted from the West Coast to the East Coast and all places in between,” said Illinois state Sen. Doris Turner, a Democrat.

Turner sponsored successful legislation this year that requires funeral directors to use unique identifiers on the body, body bag, or any donated body part or organ of the deceased. She said that chain of custody should prevent future problems with funeral homes mixing up remains.

“For me, this is probably the most important piece of legislation that I have been able to pass during my time in the General Assembly,” she said.

Some families had spread ashes in meaningful places, and one woman told Turner how she had for months talked to an urn in her home that she thought contained the remains of her mother.

Those families later learned that what they had were the remains of strangers.

“Those are things that you can’t correct,” Turner said.

Sheila Canfield-Jones, who lives about an hour outside of Denver, never thought to question the funeral home she found online after her daughter died of a heroin overdose in 2019. The Colorado facility promoted natural funeral services and promised to plant a tree in her daughter’s honor.

Four years later, the FBI notified her that she hadn’t received her daughter’s cremated remains; she’d gotten a box of ground-up concrete.

Her daughter’s body was among those left to rot inside the Return to Nature Funeral Home for years.

“You have nightmares,” she said. “You think, ‘What did she look like? What did the room look like?’ There were 190 bodies. There was an infant in there.”

Canfield-Jones said the hellish stories and the testimony of affected families were too much for lawmakers to ignore.

“We pestered the hell out of them,” she said. “So they had to listen.”

While she believes the legislation was a solid first step in addressing industry problems, she said it will take a long time to rebuild trust. In the meantime, she said, she wouldn’t want to be taken to a Colorado funeral home.

“If I die tomorrow, I’d be in a car going to Kansas,” she said. “Until all this comes down, I don’t know that I could trust anybody. You want to believe there’s good people in this industry that do a good job. And I’m sure there are. But how do you know?”

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