Six Feet Blunder

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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.

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley