Six Feet Blunder

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"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.

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley