Resting in Peace Through Hurricane Season

Once while giving an exam on disaster management I asked my students to number in importance, 1-5 the steps that should be taken after a disaster. I wanted to know that they understood the concept that number one is take care of the injured and living, and number 5 is take care of the dead. Not surprisingly, one student, (not destined for public office obviously), chose the most important task as taking care of the dead!

While most people understand the dead will be cared for after a hurricane such as Ike, most don’t think of the task of taking care of the dead who were dead before the storm. What a horrific and grim task to enter your local cemetery and see caskets stacked on top of each other above ground. But that is just the task many communities face in the aftermath of a hurricane. You don’t hear about it much, but it is an issue. Imagine part of your life returning to normal being re-burying your previously dead.

One story documents Clarence Brown, a blues musician and Grammy Award Winner in 1982. He fled Hurricane Katrina in 2005 seeking refuge in Orange, Texas but died 2 weeks after the storm. Now Hurricane Ike has disinterred him from his final hometown resting place. My favorite quote in this story is from Wayne Sparrow, third generation funeral director from Orange, Texas and Sparrow Funeral Home. After looking at the damage to the historic cemetery he said, "These are somebody's somebodies, and it needs to be taken care of as quickly as possible.” He’s the kind of funeral director I would want in my community. Here’s a link to the story, and here’s a 90 second video of the cemetery. The narrator of the video is a city worker; you won’t see him until the end of the clip.

Remember to keep these hard working people in your thoughts and prayers too, lest they think their work is not important to restoring their communities.

Pre-Need Fraud

The funeral industry seems to have a constant stream of pre-need fraud examples in the press. On September 11th the Colorado Division of Insurance and the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) added to that stream by naming Drinkwine Mortuary in Littleton as the latest violator of the law. Below are the links to the press release that DORA sent out on Thursday about Drinkwine Mortuary in Littleton; and then the information in the Summer 08 DORA Newsletter on Nolan Funeral Home in Colorado Springs, also convicted of pre-need fraud this year.

I applaud the Division of Insurance and the work they have done on these investigations, but it doesn’t go far enough. Here’s why:

1. Funeral homes are required to only deposit into trust 75% of pre-need funds, and they are allowed to keep 25% for operating expenses (paying the commission on the contract to the sales person, etc.) They are also allowed to take the interest earned off of the 75% deposited. That is reasonable. However, how does DORA think that those funeral service contracts where only 75% funded are going to be given 100% of the services when the time comes? Funeral homes should not be able to take the interest until the account is back up to 100% funded. Whether it be 100% from the entire trust to cover all of the funerals, or an individual account. 75% does not equal 100%, ever.

2. As the pre-need consumers die and their families find out they aren’t getting what they paid for, the issue of pre-need fraud will continue to grow. It’s not that it hasn’t been happening for years, it’s just that those policy owners are starting to die in larger numbers and so the fraud is being exposed in a way it hasn’t been before.

3. DORA states that their mission is consumer protection but they don’t go far enough. These families will in all likelihood get an attorney and proceed with a class action civil law-suit. Protecting the families should include reassuring them that their funeral director won’t be able to do to this another family. DORA can’t do that, DORA doesn’t regulate the funeral industry only the insurance industry.

4. Colorado needs a government entity with the authority to keep someone from practicing in funeral service, whether for a period of time or indefinitely, depending on the situation. After all is said and done the person guilty of pre-need fraud can just go down the street and open a funeral home and do the same thing all over again. Maybe they can’t sell pre-need contracts but they can still take care of grieving families.

5. The consumer needs to hear about this in more of a context than two paragraphs in the newspaper. Pre-need funeral plans are not slot machines; you don’t put money in and hope to get more back. These funds and services should be guaranteed.

The Division of Insurance will be introducing a bill in the 2009 legislative session to bring forward stricter pre-need laws. I’m not sure yet if I will testify in favor of the bill or not, my issue remaining is all the laws we currently have in funeral service aren’t doing anything to solve the ultimate problem, which is to attempt to keep the identified bad guys out. How to keep those bad guys out without punishing the good guys is the rub. I recently read an article that the Illinois Funeral Directors Association Trust is missing $40,000,000 in pre-need funds (, so I’m not naïve enough to believe that regulation of the industry in Colorado will solve this because Illinois has adequate regulation. But I am frustrated enough to try. Grieving families deserve better accountability.

Additional Reading:
The National Prearranged Services, Inc. collapse has affected policy holdes in 19 states with over a half a billion dollars in pre-need funding. If you read this article get yourself a cup of coffee first, then plan on 20 minutes. But it’s well worth your time.

The Pentagon Memorial Dedication

I don’t know why, but for some reason this September 11th anniversary was extra sad to me, I had a lump in throat all morning. Perhaps it was because of that solemn and symbolic memorial ceremony I watched on T.V. from the Pentagon. There was a day that I would describe our nation’s funerals as “cookie cutter.” Six pallbearers, Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art, the person in a casket wearing a suit they had worn maybe two other times in their life and put a sticky note on in the closet that marked it, “funeral suit.” But not anymore. The general public has figured about that personalization is the key to a meaningful ceremony, and thankfully so has our government. The Pentagon Memorial has managed to personally memorialize each of the 184 victims for who they were as individuals, not how they died as a group.

The symbolic imagery was amazing. Here’s a few facts:

• The gray concrete wall rises three inches tall at its beginning, symbolic of the youngest person who died there; three year old Dana Falkenberg, and continues to the height of 71 inches, representing the oldest victim, 71 year old retired U.S. Nacy Capt. John D. Yamnicky St.

• The centotaph in the entrance reads, “September 11 , 2001- 9:27 a.m.”

• The stone used came from the ruins of the Pentagon, still stained with burn marks.

• 184 bench-like structures, each dedicated for a victim are laid out in a pattern according to the year each victim was born, from 1988 to 1930.

• A small pool of water beneath each bench fountains to adds comfort and tranquility.

• The names on the benches face the direction the person died; if on the plane then toward the western sky, if in the Pentagon then toward the building, the east.

But perhaps the most beautiful thing the memorial brings us is simple a place to go and remember, the symbolism of the cemetery; a place to go, and remember.

To see pictures of the memorial or make a contribution visit The memorial was built with 100% private funds and now the perpetual care funds are needed.

Cremation Mercury Issue Not Going Away in Minnesota

I’ve written several blogs on mercury being released during cremation from dental amalgams. I’ve made no apologies for my position on supporting decedent rights on the issue that they should not have to endure the pulling of their teeth after their final suffering. I understand that they are dead and it won’t hurt. However, my overall opposition comes back to the lack of evidence that this is a legitimate problem worth compromising the dignity of a corpse in a matter that their teeth would pulled out of their mouth. It just seems barbaric to me that we would do this knowing that our current statistics show that all the crematories in the United States make up less than 1% of mercury emissions. I recently spoke to an environmentalist knowledgeable about this topic and he can’t understand why this is even an issue. He stated that environmentalists have much bigger worries than this.

This issue is expected to once again hit the legislative capitol in Minnesota. For the past 5 years, Senator John Marty (D) continues to introduce one form or another of a bill proposing the removal of mercury from human bodies before cremation. Colorado has term limits so I thought, wait a year, he’ll term out and then someone else will have to pick up the cause. Then I learned that Minnesota doesn’t have term limits and Senator Marty is in his 7th term. The conclusion… this issue is not going away and the Minnesota funeral directors will have to deal with it.

Subsequently, the Minnesota Funeral Directors are now looking at ways to be part of the solution, not part of problem. This may mean they will not fight the bill this session, but may in fact help sculpt it so that they can live with whatever bill may (or may not) be passed. What a quandary for any profession to be in. Darned if you do, darned if you don’t.

Here’s a copy of the bill as it was written and introduced in last Legislative Session. End of Life Insights will follow any new bill on the subject that may be introduced, and keep you informed.

I just hope that when people ask me, “Isn’t it true that Colorado is the only State in the Country that doesn’t have licensure?” I don’t have to respond, “Yes, and Minnesota is the only State that pulls teeth.”