Six Feet Blunder

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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.

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley