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Decaying bodies and fake ashes spur Colorado to confront lax funeral home oversight

DENVER — On the heels of two egregious cases of funeral home owners allegedly mishandling bodies and cremated remains, Colorado lawmakers aimed Wednesday at trying to shore up the state’s lax regulations that failed to prevent the horrific incidents.

A bipartisan House committee unanimously voted in a hearing to introduce a bill that would bring Colorado’s regulations more in line with nearly all other states by requiring routine inspections of funeral homes, including after a home’s registration has expired. It would also give the agency that oversees the industry greater enforcement power.

The legislative action comes less than one week after an arrest warrant was issued for an ex-funeral home owner in Denver who authorities say allegedly left a woman’s body in the back of a hearse for two years and hoarded cremated remains of at least 30 people.

That case followed the discovery of nearly 200 decomposed bodies at another Colorado funeral home last year. The owners allegedly sent fake ashes to grieving families, and have been charged with abusing corpses.

“The current legislative and regulatory framework has failed individuals in Colorado,” Patty Salazar said during the hearing. Salazar is the executive director of the Department of Regulatory Agencies or DORA, which oversees funeral homes. “There is a general understanding that things must change and Colorado needs to do better.”

The new bill will be formally introduced in the coming weeks and is expected to be joined by a second proposal to require stricter qualification requirements for those who run funeral homes.

Joe Walsh, president of the Colorado Funeral Directors Association, said the industry is broadly behind both proposals.

“Our industry, we are taking a beating. Going back to 2018 there have been four incidents, they have been grievous,” said Walsh. “We need to definitely react to this and we need to make sure everything is being done to not make that happen again.”

Under current law, there is no requirement for routine inspections of a funeral home or qualification requirements for funeral home operators. That’s left Colorado with egregious cases going back a decade. Funeral home operators on Colorado’s western slope were caught illegally selling body parts and giving families fake ashes between 2010 and 2018.

In the case of Return to Nature Funeral Home, where 190 decomposing bodies were found stacked on top of each other, alarms were raised in 2020, three years before the discovery.

But state lawmakers have dragged their feet in passing regulations common in other states. Those include yearly inspections and requirements that funeral home operators pass a test or receive a degree in mortuary science. In 2022, a law was passed that gave state regulators the authority to do unannounced funeral home inspections, but the bill did not provide additional funding to carry those inspections out.

The new proposal goes beyond trying to prevent headline-grabbing cases, giving regulators greater leeway in rulemaking to address more minor concerns with the industry. That includes, for example, regulators’ ability to define what’s considered adequate refrigeration for human bodies, which has been vague in state law.

Inspectors have found bodies being stored in rooms with just window air conditioners that are incapable of keeping temperatures below 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, said Sam Delp, who heads DORA’s division overseeing funeral homes. Similarly, Delp said that inspections have found multiple instances of funeral homes or crematories storing more human remains than their facilities are equipped to handle.

Still, the latest cases have left hundreds of families stricken and wondering if the ashes they received are really their loved ones. If these regulations were in place earlier, said Delp, “it’s possible the remains may have been discovered earlier.”

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Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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