Six Feet Blunder

For more than a year now, Kim Carroll has been wondering where her father is. The last time she saw him, he was dead, left in the care of a Valley funeral home. Now she's the one who can't rest in peace.

It began in November 2000, when a blood vessel burst in Andrew Carroll's brain, and at age 56, he was pronounced brain dead. Kim took charge, directing the hospital to turn off the life support. She took charge of the funeral arrangements, too. But once Carroll was wheeled into the crematorium, Kim learned that she was no longer in control of her father's fate. Instead, a funeral-home corporation called Service Corporation International (SCI) would take over from there. And now neither she nor the Houston-based company that took her father can say for sure who has the remains of Andrew Carroll today.

Kim filed a lawsuit against SCI on August 24, 2001, hoping to get some answers, and some closure. But despite the grief, she and a growing number of people who trusted SCI with their loved ones are coming to terms with the multimillion-dollar company that buries one in every seven of the nation's dead.

Through their stories, told in 10 lawsuits filed in Maricopa County Superior Court and 37 of the more serious complaints lodged with the Arizona State Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers examined by New Times, as well as interviews with five former SCI employees, New Times has discovered practices that range from the deceptive to the grotesque at SCI facilities in Arizona. Among the findings:

• SCI has converted its funeral homes into clearinghouses for the dead. Since the mid-1990s, the state's largest mortuary owner, with 34 of the state's 189 funeral homes and cemeteries, has been sending bodies from throughout the metro area to one of five central preparation facilities in the Valley, where dozens of them wait to be either embalmed or cremated.

• SCI's system of centralized body preparation has left the company vulnerable to ugly mistakes. Complaints state that human remains have been misidentified, mistakenly incinerated, and disfigured by slipshod embalming. Although high-profile mishaps in the past prompted an investigation by the Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers in 1995 -- followed by assurances from SCI that they would improve some of their procedures -- new reports suggest that egregious errors continue. Reports of botched embalmings alone have prompted three lawsuits and four complaints to the funeral board within the last five years.

• Families are not told by SCI that their loved ones are sent to an off-site facility for mass processing. If they choose cremation, chances are their loved one will never be taken to a local funeral home. Families often don't even know that the funeral home they picked is owned by SCI.

• SCI stretches its staff thin, putting funeral directors in charge of multiple mortuaries. Overseeing them are managers, many of them unlicensed and inexperienced in funeral care, who are not subject to regulatory oversight. Under their management, funeral directors are sometimes expected to complete twice the number of cases that some regulators deem acceptable. Plus, former SCI funeral directors say they were told to meet corporate quotas or risk losing their jobs.

• SCI's high-volume, centralized processing has also led to sloppy -- and illegal -- personnel practices, in which apprentice embalmers have been allowed to work without any supervision, while other staffers who are completely untrained -- including cemetery workers -- helped in the preparation of bodies.

• SCI is a formidable foe in the courtroom and the boardroom. The corporation, the world's largest provider of funeral services with 3,188 funeral establishments, requires its customers to waive their right to sue, although many of them don't know it. When signing SCI's service contract, customers often don't realize they've agreed to a fine-print stipulation dictating that any legal action has to go through arbitration rather than the courts, which protects SCI from punitive damages. At meetings of the state funeral board, the company also succeeds in softening disciplinary actions. Now, the board and at least one state lawmaker are working on bills for the upcoming session that are aimed at reforming many of SCI's practices, but funeral industry lobbyists are already gearing up for a fight.

When questioned about customers' and reformers' chief complaints about SCI -- namely, its policies on centralization and disclosure -- Arizona's affiliate of the company issues brief responses.

It defends its practice of centralizing the preparation of human remains, saying that consolidation makes the best use of staff and equipment. "We feel like it provides a better level of service to our families," says Brian Mueller, area vice president for SCI Arizona Funeral Services Inc., the company's subsidiary in Arizona. If families ask where their loved one will be taken care of, SCI will tell them, he says, but not every family wants to know the details of such preparations.

"There are many aspects of funeral services that are not discussed with families," says Mueller. "We're going to take care of their loved ones the best way we can to serve their needs."

Problems at SCI are perhaps best understood by people like Vince Melcher, a funeral director who watched his business change from a well-known mom-and-pop mortuary into a cog in SCI's corporate body-processing machine.

In the early 1990s, business was booming at Melcher's Mortuary in Mesa, the funeral home Vince Melcher's family had run for more than a half-century. Melcher's did business with generations of local families, as well as with plenty of snow birds who ended up flocking to Arizona for the last time. Funeral service times and spaces in the preparation room were running out, and Vince was having to turn customers away.

Then the Melchers made an investment that would make SCI salivate. Nearly $2 million was spent on a huge, state-of-the-art embalming facility in East Mesa, with refrigeration space that outclassed that of even the county medical examiner's office. The new prep room and cooler would help Melcher's better handle the increasing business at its two mortuaries, and possibly at a third funeral home, should the family choose to build another.

But the Melchers had barely started using the new prep area in 1995 when executives from SCI's headquarters in Houston came to Mesa, says Mary Melcher, Vince's mother and the office manager for the family business. With SCI switching to centralized embalming at all of its facilities, and one of its central prep locations closing down at A.L. Moore & Sons in Phoenix to make way for a new courthouse, Melcher's cavernous prep room was just what it needed. Soon, SCI was opening its checkbook wide, and Mary Melcher's eyes widened, too. SCI paid the family nearly $5 million and agreed to let Vince and his brother, Bill, continue to run the Mesa mortuaries.

"I remember when Mr. [Robert] Waltrip [SCI's chief executive officer] came out and couldn't believe his eyes," says Vince. He talked about the standards of efficiency, integrity and attention to detail that Melcher's was known for, says Vince, and he gave him a promise from the company: "That it would continue to be run in a manner we would strive to achieve, and that I would run it with autonomy."

But within days of the purchase it became clear that Vince and Bill were no longer in charge and that Melcher's new embalming facility would become a drop-off point for bodies from funeral homes across the Valley.

"Basically what was happening is we were just being steamrolled," says Vince. The brothers couldn't get through all the bodies without skipping some of the preparations, he says, and SCI's practices were sloppy.

Vince says he discovered pacemakers in bodies that were labeled as having had them removed, an oversight that causes pacemakers to explode in the incinerator. Paperwork authorizing cremation was not signed by all the necessary members of the family. And bodies were arriving either without body bags, seeping onto gurneys, or in cardboard cremation boxes, which often collapsed as staff pulled them out of the removal van.

Vince stood up to SCI's managers, refusing to allow vans to pick up bodies unless they were in a pouch or a rigid cremation container. But after nine months he'd had enough. He and his brother left SCI, then Vince hired a lawyer to sue the firm for breach of contract. Instead of filing suit, he agreed to be paid his $50,000 salary for five years. Now Melcher is selling boats in Tempe, vowing never to return to the funeral business.

"There is a point when you have to trade in your conscience when you walk through the front door," he says. "Pretty soon I couldn't look myself in the mirror after bringing people in and saying, 'This is what you get.' Did they break the law? Certainly not. Were they being unethical? Yes, they were."

But Renee Hensley says that during her 10 years of experience working for SCI, from 1990 to 2000, some of the company's funeral homes did routinely violate state regulations, particularly their limits on how the embalming process is supervised and restricted. Hensley was hired into a clerical position at Lakeshore Mortuary, but was soon meeting with families and setting up their funeral arrangements. Then one day, her own morbid curiosity lured her back into the preparation area (SCI had not yet switched to centralized embalming).

There, she was taught the techniques of embalming and became an apprentice, requiring supervision by a licensed embalmer. But as Hensley fine-tuned her skills, more bodies were dropped off at her table, and eventually she found herself embalming alone, without any licensed professional in the building, sometimes until 10 p.m.

"I was told that my apprenticeship license allowed for that . . . but the longer I was there, the more I saw things happening that shouldn't be happening," she says.

Once embalming was moved to the centralized facility SCI had bought from Melcher's, more and more bodies started coming in, and more and more untrained workers were brought in to prepare them -- sometimes even employees from the graveyard. Toward the end of her tenure with SCI, Hensley remembers seeing cemetery workers entering the prep room while she and the other embalmers were in scrubs. One of the employees was struggling to put a dress on one of the bodies before a viewing, but it was too small. Somehow, the dress was yanked into place, but as soon as the dead woman was wheeled out, Hensley heard a voice ordering the cemetery worker back inside because she had put the wrong dress on the wrong body.

"The body wasn't even washed," says Hensley. "There was no bra, no underwear. That is so gross."

For his part, Brian Mueller of SCI Arizona Funeral Services says he's not aware of apprentices being left alone, or of unauthorized employees handling bodies. And despite what Hensley says she often saw in the prep room, she took her job seriously. "I was very proud of what I did," she says. "That was the last time they'd see that person, so I was real careful."

Hensley would shave men's beards close. After bathing the bodies, she would fluff the eyelashes with a towel to keep them from drying flat. When the body of an elderly woman would arrive with her hands still clenched in fists after years of lying motionless in a nursing home, Hensley would massage them loose, until her hands could rest peacefully on her chest.

Colleagues teased her for her perfectionistic approach, she says, but most embalmers wouldn't -- or couldn't -- take the time to refine a body's appearance. Embalming was done as quickly as possible, which locked the body in place, making it impossible to fluff eyelashes or unclench fists.

"Everyone would look at the clock and hurry up, so I don't think central embalming worked out to anyone's advantage," says Hensley, who had been to night school for four years, preparing for tests to become a licensed embalmer. Her life was the funeral-home business. She was even married in Lakeshore Mortuary's chapel.

But Hensley grew more and more uneasy about SCI's mass-production approach to caring for the dead. Other things bothered her, too, like the container of jewelry she saw while working briefly at SCI's A.L. Moore & Sons. The container was filled with unclaimed jewelry that was either not buried with the bodies, or was removed before cremation, she says.

Hensley was fired for a matter unrelated to her job performance; her antique clarinet was stolen from the casket display area, she says, and her bosses didn't want her to file a police report. Two days later, she reported the loss, and SCI fired her. Hensley's former employer was not available to comment on her termination. But by that time, she says, she was ready to leave. "I lost respect for SCI, but I didn't lose respect for the bodies, the families."

Lack of respect for human remains was the centerpiece of two lawsuits against SCI, one filed by Kelly Avila and her family in December 1996; the other, by Earnest Hammonds and his daughter, Cheryl Shoobridge, in November 1998.

Although the funerals were two years apart, both families peered into the coffins and were horrified by what they saw.

Mary Hammonds had been fighting cancer, but it wasn't the chemotherapy that made the 69-year-old look disfigured on the last day her family and friends got to see her.

After Hammonds' husband, Earnest, and her daughter, Shoobridge, arrived at Melcher's Mortuary in Mesa to make funeral arrangements, a dispute erupted over a lower price they said SCI had quoted them earlier to embalm Hammonds and have her flown back to her home in Flint, Michigan, for funeral services. But Earnest didn't have the spirit to fight in his time of grief, and he got out his checkbook, saying he just wanted to get "Mama taken care of," court records state.

What the family didn't know was that Hammonds would be taken care of 13 miles away at the central embalming facility SCI bought from the Melchers, and that, according to their complaint, an apprentice embalmer would use the wrong concentrations of embalming fluids.

When Hammonds arrived at Swartz Funeral Home in Flint, her skin was green and her body misshapen. Her neck, eyes and ears were swollen, her lips were curled inward and her skin was rock-hard. Thomas Rood, assistant manager of Swartz, called the embalming job the worst he'd ever seen, according to court records. He and another mortician spent nearly three hours trying to make Hammonds presentable for the funeral service.

But there was little they could do to make her look like she used to, and her daughter considered closing the casket. Friends and family told Shoobridge they couldn't recognize her. Hammonds' granddaughter had to check her hands for the manicure she gave her the day before she died.

After the ordeal, a flare-up of ulcers, dizziness and other symptoms sent Earnest to the hospital. Shoobridge sank into depression and continued to have nightmares of a faceless woman. On November 17, 1998, the father and daughter filed a lawsuit against SCI.

The company tried to argue that Shoobridge lacked standing to bring the suit because she was the daughter, not the spouse, of the deceased. The company also argued that it was not a party to the lawsuit because the corporate entity was separate from its subsidiary in Arizona. And SCI tried to force the family to submit to arbitration, which does not allow for punitive damages. Their argument lay in the fine print of the purchase agreement signed by Earnest:

"By signing this agreement you expressly waive, and you agree that you shall not be entitled to recover, damages or losses of any kind, whether direct or consequential, based on negligence. You further acknowledge and agree that emotional distress will not be one of the claimed items of damage for any breach of contract."

Arguing for arbitration, lack of standing, and corporate non-affiliation are common tactical moves by SCI, moves which have succeeded in some cases. But the company decided to settle with Earnest and Shoobridge, whose lawyer declined to comment on the case, citing a confidentiality agreement.

While the Hammonds' case involved embalming Mary Hammonds did receive, Kelly Avila's case was about the embalming her father, Gary May, did not receive. May's body was left to decompose for a day and a half before an embalmer started working on him.

After May suffered a fatal heart attack in September 1995, his family of five children called SCI's A.L. Moore & Sons to pick up their father's body at the hospital, but they weren't sure where to hold the services or whether to have him embalmed.

In the meantime, space was running out at A.L. Moore & Sons, which was being used as one of the central embalming centers for SCI. It was Saturday night and the cooler was too crowded with bodies, so SCI staff placed May on a table under the air conditioning. May's body stayed there until Monday morning, when the family decided to have funeral services at Greer Wilson Funeral Home (not owned by SCI), which was closer to May's friends and family in Phoenix.

State law stipulates that unless embalmed, a body should not be kept above 38 degrees for more than 24 hours. By the time embalming began on May at Greer Wilson, he had been exposed for nearly 39 hours. The mortician made May's poor condition clear in the embalming report, noting that the body had been "thawed," with slight rigor mortis, intense abdominal distension, tissue-gas swelling of the head and chest, and blood discoloring the skin over half his body. But no one made May's condition clear to his family, which had a viewing scheduled the following night.

The procession of siblings began down the aisle toward the casket, and one-by-one, there were gasps of horror. The first family members to see him tried to warn the others behind them, including the children's mother, who put her arm around Gary May Jr. and said "That's not him, son. That's him over here. Look at his picture," according to testimony from May's son.

The family sued the owners of both funeral homes -- court records don't indicate that the family signed a contract with SCI -- and eventually won a settlement. But the funeral homes fought the case for more than two years, arguing that punitive damages were unwarranted.

"Defendants had no space in the mortuary freezer/cooler and dealt with the situation the best they could . . . ," an SCI lawyer argued, "[S]uch conduct does not support the contention that SCI defendants acted with an evil mind."

Taking legal action against SCI, however, doesn't seem to have stopped mistakes with human remains. The funeral board hasn't been able to stop them, either. Since 1995, funeral establishments owned by SCI have accounted for more than one in five complaints filed with the board, with 65 out of a total of 296 complaints tallied by regulators.

Three of the cases involved identification foul-ups, one resulting from a wrongful cremation and two involving problems identifying ashes. In each case, SCI blamed an employee instead of its own policies and procedures. The funeral board investigated two of the cases and found that problems at SCI went deeper than an errant employee. But the board ended up handing down mild disciplinary actions.

In the case of one woman whose body was misidentified and cremated against her family's wishes, the board's initial $15,000 fine was reduced to $10,000 after the company objected, and letters of reprimand were sent to the company and the two responsible funeral directors. In another case, concerning a funeral director who altered a contract after it had been signed, SCI bargained down the board's punishment -- a letter of censure -- to a letter of reprimand. In both cases, no orders were given that would change SCI's funeral-home practices.

Today, problems continue, and overworked employees continue to carry the blame while centralized practices remain in place.

The day after Dale Ruiz's mother died, Ruiz met with Kevin Huddleston, a funeral director for SCI's Arizona Aftercare, and made plans to have his mother cremated. Huddleston assured him that ashes of his mother, Bertha Dennis, would be ready in time for her funeral Mass on Tuesday, November 28, 2000.

But the cremains were not ready in time, and the funeral director was in a tight spot. On the night before the Mass, according to funeral board findings, Huddleston decided to give Ruiz the unclaimed ashes of someone else left in a storage bin at Arizona Aftercare.

The Mass was beautiful, Ruiz and Josephine said. The priest blessed the ashes and the couple brought them home, where Ruiz spent some quiet moments alone with the cremains he assumed were his mother's.

Three weeks later, Robert Ziegler, SCI's area manager at the time, discovered that Dennis had not been cremated until November 29, the day after her funeral Mass. Ruiz watched in quiet horror as Ziegler came to his front door and handed him his mother's cremains, taking away the urn he and his priest had been praying before days earlier. Ruiz's case is still pending and, because he signed the service contract, may be limited to arbitration.

"The damage is done. I'll never have the chance to have another service," he says. "It's one of those things you can only do once."

Ziegler says Huddleston admitted to him that he did not know whose cremains were given to Ruiz, and by the time Arizona Aftercare was brought before the board, SCI had shifted the blame onto Huddleston, who was fired December 6. "Kevin was, and remains, responsible for his own actions and conduct as a licensed funeral director," Ziegler wrote in a letter to the board.

As board members questioned Huddleston about his lapse in judgment, it became clear that he was overworked. Paul Messinger, a board member and owner of four independent funeral homes, was shocked to hear that Huddleston handled 371 deaths in 2000, more than twice what he and some other board members consider appropriate. "Ordinarily, that would be a tremendous amount for a single director."

Ziegler argued that the number was not exorbitant because most of the cases at facilities like Arizona Aftercare are cremations, which do not require embalming and other arrangements. "[T]here are other locations that have about the same case volume with the same amount of staff," he wrote, "and they're perfectly capable of taking care of the day-to-day business activities, in addition to meeting with families. . . ."

But Huddleston and other former SCI funeral directors say they were overworked and threatened with the loss of their jobs if they didn't complete enough funeral arrangements, making them susceptible to poor judgment and mistakes. Huddleston, who was on medication for depression during his last months of employment with SCI, had one secretary and a part-time assistant to help him.

"I really had a big burnout. I hit rock bottom," says Huddleston, who is now working for an independently owned mortuary in Utah. The board suspended his license for 30 days, put him on six months probation and fined him $500. SCI received a letter of censure and a $500 fine. "With burnout, you don't care, unfortunately."

It's Saturday afternoon and a funeral service has begun at Messinger's Mortuary in Scottsdale. A gray-haired man walks in looking for the service, but wanders over to the clergy room, distraught, his hand on his forehead. Paul Messinger gets up from his chair and guides the man over to the chapel.

"The difference between corporately owned funeral homes and privately operated funeral homes is that almost all of us got into the work with the idea of working with people," says Messinger, who speaks in a soft, comforting tone. "We didn't get into it to make money."

Messinger says SCI has asked him many times if he will sell, but the 52-year veteran of the funeral trade would rather remain a competitor. "Would having a large pile of money mean more than going to work? No," he says. "I've always told them we're not for sale."

Corporate cost-cutting has driven many of the changes in funeral care, he says, from central embalming to sales quotas, but none of these changes will work if people are not helped by funeral services.

"The need for mourning is like the need for a drink of water," he says. "It's much more difficult to work it out all by yourself."

The fear that mourners are going away unsatisfied, hurt by mistakes at funeral homes, is driving a number of the legislative changes sought by the funeral board this year. Messinger, a member of the board, says the agency is trying to ensure that funeral directors, not unlicensed managers, are in charge of funeral homes, and that directors are not given multiple licenses. The goal is to keep one director from having to cover several funeral homes and hundreds of cases each year.

Another problem should be corrected next summer, when legislation takes effect that will eliminate embalming apprenticeships, while requiring those who have already been licensed as apprentices for at least five years to receive formal training.

Nonetheless, some of the biggest changes this year could come from the woman who's still searching for her father's remains, as well as some hard answers: Kim Carroll.

To this day, Carroll is still not completely sure what happened to her father. When arranging for cremation, she wanted to know how they handled the process and how they could be sure she would receive his cremains. "I was told, basically, that mistakes couldn't happen," she says.

Carroll and her sister, Patricia Powers -- their father's closest living relatives -- signed the documents authorizing cremation, and they allowed for the goodwill gesture of their father's friend, Shirley Sommerhalter, to pay for the services. No other forms were signed by the sisters.

Two weeks later, Carroll learned from her sister that the funeral home had given her father's death certificates and some ashes not to either of the daughters but to Sommerhalter, despite the fact that death certificates by law are supposed to go only to immediate family members. Carroll went back to Arizona Aftercare and demanded to see her paperwork. Among the documents was a paper that waived the family's option to verify their father's identity before he was cremated. At the bottom, where the next-of-kin's signature was supposed to be, someone had signed Patricia Powers' name. The handwriting wasn't Patricia's.

Mike Carry, an office assistant, had signed the portion of the waiver showing that a photo was used to identify Carroll's father, but the family says they never gave the funeral home a photo. Carry refused to comment on the case.

Sitting with the documents in front of two staff members of Arizona Aftercare, Carroll was bewildered. "I panicked. I asked them, 'How do I know that's my dad?' They just looked at each other speechless."

SCI has since admitted that Carry signed Powers' name on the document, and that he was disciplined, according to a disclosure by SCI's lawyers in Carroll's lawsuit.

Still, this offers little solace to Carroll, who has no way of knowing if the body SCI cremated was her father's, or if the ashes Sommerhalter was given were indeed his.

Driven by the closure she never received from the funeral home that cremated her father, Carroll has gotten state Representative Kathi Foster to sponsor legislation that would require mortuaries in corporate chains like SCI to disclose their ownership to consumers and the fact that they send bodies to central preparation facilities. Foster is also looking into requiring the use of identification tags that survive the cremation process, and that certain verification procedures be followed before a body is cremated.

Corporate changes to funeral care have left consumers in the dark, says Foster. "To me, it almost borders on a fraud. It's [a consumer's] right to know what's happened."

SCI officials and a lobbyist for the funeral industry trade group in Arizona say they don't know enough about the legislation yet to comment on it. But regulators say some in the industry are already resisting the proposals.

Carroll says she'll keep fighting. The cost of letting funeral homes get away with secrecy and mistakes is too great.

"It feels like I failed to put my dad to rest," she says. "The least I can do right now is try to correct this."

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley