Funeral home horrors put spotlight on spotty U.S. regulations
DETROIT — The stench of decomposing flesh pulsed from a funeral home into a Michigan neighborhood as maggots wriggled along the garage floor near cardboard-boxed corpses stacked along walls.
The dead can’t complain, but on occasion — through rot — they scream for judgment against the living entrusted with prompt and solemn cremation or burial. Of 10 bodies found in the unrefrigerated garage at Swanson Funeral Home in Flint last year, one was not embalmed and had been there about six weeks. The Michigan attorney general filed complaints against the business, but it remained open until July — after inspectors again found bodies in the unrefrigerated garage.
The Flint business is one of several funeral homes in the U.S. in recent years that have been forced to close after similarly gruesome discoveries, usually only after someone has complained to local authorities. Funeral home regulations vary across the U.S., with some states requiring annual inspections and several requiring no inspections at all. Michigan is among those that review funeral homes when they apply for a license or when a complaint is filed.
“I think better state oversight is certainly the solution,” but “it’s really going to be a budget thing,” said Scott Gilligan, general counsel of the National Funeral Directors Association. “Most states are struggling with budgets. It costs more money to hire inspectors and hire better enforcement.”
The Flint funeral home had been fined several times and faced multiple complaints before Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs suspended licenses of the business and its manager, O’Neil Swanson II. The move followed an unannounced inspection in May that was spurred by news reports that staff had mixed up two bodies.
Before that, Michigan’s attorney general had filed gross negligence, incompetence and other complaints in September 2016 after the 10 bodies were found in the garage. And in 2015, an outside funeral director complained to the state about problems that included the smell of decomposition and blood and fluids on the floor of a basement prep room, according to Licensing and Regulatory Affairs documents.
But Robert Duffer says inspectors would have found something amiss even before then if they had looked into a complaint from his family after the 2012 death of his wife. Duffer’s family believes they were given ashes belonging to someone else.
“The place was filthy,” Duffer, 77, told The Associated Press. “It was like an ancient room that’d never been cleaned.”
When the family tried to retrieve Myrna Duffer’s remains, an employee took 45 minutes before returning with a white paper bag filled with ashes, the couple’s daughter, Patricia Williams, said. There was nothing to indicate the ashes were Duffer’s.
“That’s all we got,” said Williams, 53. “So, then we knew we did not have my mom.”
Williams says her family complained to Licensing and Regulatory Affairs and other state officials, but that nothing was ever done. The state agency declined to comment beyond its complaint filed in July. Also, multiple messages were left for O’Neil Swanson II seeking comment, and it’s not clear whether he has an attorney.
Swanson Funeral Home operates prominent facilities in Detroit. State officials say the funeral home in Flint is a separate legal entity and license from any facility in Detroit.
It was complaints about employee working conditions that initially led inspectors to the Flint funeral home, according to the state’s complaint.
Complaints also led to this summer’s closure of Premium Mortuary Services in Carlisle, Ohio, where one body had mold while the face of another that arrived in March “was beginning to mummify,” according to an inspector’s report.
Ohio’s funeral board sends an inspector annually. Maine does random inspections. North Carolina and New Hampshire require them every three years. But no inspections are required in Alaska, Delaware, Iowa and Colorado, according to the International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards.
Florida inspects at least annually, but was unaware of problems at Brock’s Home Town Funeral Home in Panama City until contacted by the local sheriff’s office, which found 16 bodies rotting there in August 2016.
One belonged to 88-year-old Ada Kimble, whose body had been there for about 10 days before her family learned it had not been cremated.
“I think the state should check more regularly, just like in a restaurant when the health inspector checks,” said Kimble’s daughter, Mary Clay.
Brock’s funeral director Gregory Dunphy and manager Felicia Boesch were charged with misdemeanor mishandling human remains.
Defense attorney Steven Meadows declined to allow Dunphy to comment, but an investigative report says it was Dunphy who initially called authorities, telling the sheriff’s office the “funeral home was out of money and the bodies … were going bad.”
Boesch entered into an agreement with prosecutors that included dismissal of charges if she completes probation, said attorney Anthony Graham.
Graham said Brock’s was owned by Boesch’s father and that she had turned in a resignation letter before the bodies were found.
“It appears Mr. Dunphy literally got overwhelmed,” Graham said. “There’s no evidence that anyone was pirating away a bunch of money.”
What took place at Brock’s was “a rare occurrence” in Florida, said Jon Moore, spokesman for the state’s Financial Services Department, which oversees funeral homes. The agency did just under 2,000 inspections and investigations in 2016-17.
“Our state is growing and we have a large elderly population,” Moore said. “As we see that growth, we are working to make sure we keep up with any harmful trends that may develop within the industry.”
Among the bodies found rotting at Brocks’ was that of 71-year-old Linda Bailey, who had died six weeks earlier.
“That image that I had of my mom just killed me. It breaks me down every time,” Jerry Bailey said.
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