Colorado tightens regulations for funeral homes after several scandals – what this implies for families

In June 2024Colorado has passed two laws that tighten the regulations on the funeral industry. The laws follows several incidents in funeral homes across the state where human stays were mistreated and in some cases relations fake ashes from family members.

The Conversation US spoke with Tanya D. Marsha professor at Wake Forest University who teaches the nation's only course on funeral and cemetery law, to higher understand whether Colorado's latest laws will prevent future funeral home scandals.

Can you describe the scandals?

In recent years, there have been two major burial scandals in Colorado.

In 2023, the operators of Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose, Colorado, pleaded guilty to an indictment in federal court. They admitted that from 2010 to 2018 they lied to a whole lot of families by promising to cremate their family members, but as an alternative sold their bodies to so-called Body broker. Body dealers operate in a legal grey area and make donated human stays available to universities and firms involved in medical and scientific research.

Megan Hess, 46, was sentenced to twenty years in prison, and Shirley Koch, 69, was convicted to fifteen years in prison.

In early 2024, the owners of Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Colorado, were charged for misusing the stays of nearly 200 people. They were charged in state court with corpse desecration, money laundering, theft and forgery. Owners Jon and Carie Hallford claimed to supply cremation services. Instead, they allegedly stored the stays unrefrigerated on the funeral home and returned dry concrete powder to the families as an alternative of ashes. According to court documents, the bodies were “stored in rooms infested with vermin and the liquid decomposition of other corpses.”

Two cars are parked behind barrier tape in front of a one-story building with a tiled roof
The funeral home Return to Nature is accused of improper handling of human stays.
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

What strikes me about each scandals is how long the misconduct lasted before it was discovered – eight years within the case of Sunset Mesa and 5 years within the Return to Nature case. Colorado law didn’t require inspections of funeral homes, and it is sort of possible that regular inspections would have uncovered each of those situations much sooner, potentially saving a whole lot of families from exploitation.

Is this a nationwide problem?

Burial law within the United States is regulated by the statesnot the federal government.

The funeral industry has been largely regulated by a system of skilled licensing for the reason that late nineteenth century. In 2023 all states except Colorado licensed funeral directors and embalmers. Occupational licensing laws typically require certain courses—often an associate's degree in funeral services—in addition to passing a state or national exam and spending a certain quantity of time as an intern. The overwhelming majority of states also licenses for funeral homes and crematoria.

In Colorado, undertakers and embalmers were regulated by knowledgeable license. until 1983This 12 months, the Colorado legislature replaced this structure with so-called “Title protection“” for undertakers, funeral directors, embalmers and cremators.

In order to make use of one among these protected titles in Colorado, an individual mainly had to fulfill certain requirements that were very much like the tutorial and skilled requirements in other states. Funeral homes and crematoriums should be registered in Colorado, which is analogous to licensing.

Although Colorado’s property protection and registration structure was much like the skilled licensing system in other states, had no power to examine funeral homes, even after complaints from consumers. According to court documents, the Fremont County Coroner by email to Colorado's Department of Regulatory Agencies to report his suspicions in regards to the Return to Nature funeral home in 2020, however the state never responded. Essentially, the one enforcement mechanism in Colorado law was criminal law, which might only handle essentially the most egregious situations. For example, in Colorado it is illegitimate intentionally mutilating or destroying human stays in an effort to affect their appearance or availability in an official proceeding reminiscent of a criminal trial. Colorado also has a Abuse of the corpse law which prohibits the handling of human stays in a fashion that will “offend the normal sensibilities of a family”.

How will the laws work?

Colorado recently passed two measures designed to enhance the regulation of funeral homes. first measuresigned by Governor Jared Polis on May 24, 2024, requires routine inspection of funeral homes and crematoriums. The state initially plans to rent two inspectors to examine the greater than 300 listed funeral homesbut no beneficial timetable for his or her work has yet been published.

The second measure was signed by Polis on May 28, 2024. It essentially transforms the title protection requirements which have been in place since 1983 right into a more standardized skilled licensing system. Current Colorado practitioners who lack the required experience or training may have three years to acquire licensure.

A man sits at a table and signs a piece of paper.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis signs bills to determine more comprehensive guidelines for funeral homes.
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Will this prevent future scandals?

The initiators of the bill obviously hope that it should protect consumers and stop scandals just like the one Colorado recently experienced.

In my view, a very powerful a part of the brand new laws is the requirement that funeral homes and crematoriums be inspected usually. Inspectors would likely have discovered the bodies stored at Return to Nature Funeral Home much sooner. However, it is just not clear whether the inspection would have discovered the activities at Sunset Mesa Funeral Home.

I'm unsure the brand new licensing regulations are a panacea. Jon Hallford got here from a family with a multi-generational history of funeral directors and had a level in funeral services. Unfortunately, education and experience don’t all the time mean that an individual will behave ethically and legally.

Finding a good funeral home generally is a challenge for consumers because people rarely use their services. This challenge is even tougher when you find yourself making decisions in the mean time of loss, when you find yourself grieving and under stress. The best strategy is to research options and funeral homes prematurely and plan as much as possible. Cultural unwillingness to discuss death and end-of-life care makes it difficult to discover and avoid perpetrators.

image credit :