Six Feet Blunder

Page 2 of 7

"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).

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley