Longform

Six Feet Blunder

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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.

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley