Six Feet Blunder

For more than a year now, Kim Carroll has been wondering where her father is. The last time she saw him, he was dead, left in the care of a Valley funeral home. Now she's the one who can't rest in peace.

It began in November 2000, when a blood vessel burst in Andrew Carroll's brain, and at age 56, he was pronounced brain dead. Kim took charge, directing the hospital to turn off the life support. She took charge of the funeral arrangements, too. But once Carroll was wheeled into the crematorium, Kim learned that she was no longer in control of her father's fate. Instead, a funeral-home corporation called Service Corporation International (SCI) would take over from there. And now neither she nor the Houston-based company that took her father can say for sure who has the remains of Andrew Carroll today.

Kim filed a lawsuit against SCI on August 24, 2001, hoping to get some answers, and some closure. But despite the grief, she and a growing number of people who trusted SCI with their loved ones are coming to terms with the multimillion-dollar company that buries one in every seven of the nation's dead.

Through their stories, told in 10 lawsuits filed in Maricopa County Superior Court and 37 of the more serious complaints lodged with the Arizona State Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers examined by New Times, as well as interviews with five former SCI employees, New Times has discovered practices that range from the deceptive to the grotesque at SCI facilities in Arizona. Among the findings:

• SCI has converted its funeral homes into clearinghouses for the dead. Since the mid-1990s, the state's largest mortuary owner, with 34 of the state's 189 funeral homes and cemeteries, has been sending bodies from throughout the metro area to one of five central preparation facilities in the Valley, where dozens of them wait to be either embalmed or cremated.

• SCI's system of centralized body preparation has left the company vulnerable to ugly mistakes. Complaints state that human remains have been misidentified, mistakenly incinerated, and disfigured by slipshod embalming. Although high-profile mishaps in the past prompted an investigation by the Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers in 1995 -- followed by assurances from SCI that they would improve some of their procedures -- new reports suggest that egregious errors continue. Reports of botched embalmings alone have prompted three lawsuits and four complaints to the funeral board within the last five years.

• Families are not told by SCI that their loved ones are sent to an off-site facility for mass processing. If they choose cremation, chances are their loved one will never be taken to a local funeral home. Families often don't even know that the funeral home they picked is owned by SCI.

• SCI stretches its staff thin, putting funeral directors in charge of multiple mortuaries. Overseeing them are managers, many of them unlicensed and inexperienced in funeral care, who are not subject to regulatory oversight. Under their management, funeral directors are sometimes expected to complete twice the number of cases that some regulators deem acceptable. Plus, former SCI funeral directors say they were told to meet corporate quotas or risk losing their jobs.

• SCI's high-volume, centralized processing has also led to sloppy -- and illegal -- personnel practices, in which apprentice embalmers have been allowed to work without any supervision, while other staffers who are completely untrained -- including cemetery workers -- helped in the preparation of bodies.

• SCI is a formidable foe in the courtroom and the boardroom. The corporation, the world's largest provider of funeral services with 3,188 funeral establishments, requires its customers to waive their right to sue, although many of them don't know it. When signing SCI's service contract, customers often don't realize they've agreed to a fine-print stipulation dictating that any legal action has to go through arbitration rather than the courts, which protects SCI from punitive damages. At meetings of the state funeral board, the company also succeeds in softening disciplinary actions. Now, the board and at least one state lawmaker are working on bills for the upcoming session that are aimed at reforming many of SCI's practices, but funeral industry lobbyists are already gearing up for a fight.

When questioned about customers' and reformers' chief complaints about SCI -- namely, its policies on centralization and disclosure -- Arizona's affiliate of the company issues brief responses.

It defends its practice of centralizing the preparation of human remains, saying that consolidation makes the best use of staff and equipment. "We feel like it provides a better level of service to our families," says Brian Mueller, area vice president for SCI Arizona Funeral Services Inc., the company's subsidiary in Arizona. If families ask where their loved one will be taken care of, SCI will tell them, he says, but not every family wants to know the details of such preparations.