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Rotting bodies, fake ashes and sold body parts push Colorado to patch lax funeral home rules

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LA Post: Rotting bodies, fake ashes and sold body parts push Colorado to patch lax funeral home rules
AP
JESSE BEDAYN
March 04, 2024

DENVER (AP) — After nearly 200 bodies were found stacked and rotting in a Colorado funeral home, lawmakers have proposed bills to overhaul the state's threadbare funeral home regulations, which failed to prevent a string of gruesome cases — from sold body parts to fake ashes.

The cases have shattered hundreds of families. Many learned that their loved ones' remains weren't in the ashes they ceremonially spread or held tight for years but were instead decaying in a building or, in one case, the back of hearse.

Their devastation pushed state lawmakers to unveil a bipartisan bill Monday that would implement Colorado's first licensing requirements to become a funeral home director, bringing licensing rules in line with all other states and even surpassing most. The bill also sets requirements for other industry jobs, including embalmers and cremationists.

“Too many Colorado families have had to face the gruesome and unacceptable reality that their loved ones' remains had been mishandled, lost, improperly cared for, sold and completely disrespected,” said Democratic Sen. Dylan Roberts, one of the bill’s sponsors, at a press conference.

“Things have reached a breaking point,” he said.

It’s a dramatic update in a state where funeral home directors are not required to have graduated high school. If the bill passes, a license would require a background check, degree in mortuary science, passage of a national examination and an apprenticeship.

In February, just months after 190 bodies were found in a bug-infested funeral home facility two hours south of Denver, another body was found in a separate case: that of Christina Rosales.

Rosales' body was found in a hearse, covered in blankets, and only discovered because the owner of the funeral home in suburban Denver was being evicted. Rosales had passed away at age 63 from Alzheimer's, and her husband, George Rosales, had chosen the funeral home because they were friends with the operator.

When George Rosales learned his late wife's body had been left on the gurney of a hearse, and that he'd been given somebody else's ashes, he tried to stay strong for their two young-adult children.

In private, he said Monday, his eyes watering, “I’ve cried many times for her."

“After 18 months I thought I was done with this but it started all over again," he said after speaking at the news conference in favor of the bill. “I probably wouldn’t have found out about my wife’s body if he wasn’t getting evicted."

A second Colorado bill set to be introduced will require routine inspections by regulators, including after a funeral home's registration lapses — which occurred with the funeral home that George Rosales had hired. Colorado is currently far behind the rest of states, many of which have routine inspections annually or every few years.

“We currently license hairdressers. We currently inspect restaurants. We need to be doing something similar, or certainly more so, for funeral homes,” said Republican Rep. Matt Soper, one of the bill's sponsors.

When the FBI told Shelia Canfield-Jones that her daughter's remains had been found among the nearly 200 in one Colorado facility, she sat with officials clutching the urn in disbelief. The mother refused to part with what she had thought were her daughter's ashes for four years.

Canfield-Jones recalled an official finally taking the ashes out of the urn, and repeating: “It's not your daughter.”

“He had to keep telling us over and over again,” she said in an interview, eyes welling. “It was horrific.”

Canfield-Jones has been left with nightmares of her daughter's decomposing body.

The 190 bodies were discovered last year in a building in Penrose, and the owners have been arrested and face hundreds of charges, including abuse of a corpse. A red flag had been raised by the local coroner as far back as 2020, three years before the bodies were discovered.

Joe Walsh, president of the Colorado Funeral Directors Association, said the group is in favor of the legislation, though he cautioned against believing these rules could prevent all future mishaps.

“Yeah we got the license, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to equate to perfection, unfortunately,” said Walsh. Still, he said, it's an important step in showing Colorado residents that they can trust the industry, and prevent as many bad actors as possible.

“The best way to do this is to improve and show that we are adapting, and adjusting and overcoming,” he said.

The bill also includes an option for those who already operate funeral homes but haven't met the new requirements, which are set to kick in in 2026. The option would require 6,500 hours of work experience and a criminal background check to get a provisional license that would become a full license after two years without discipline.

To renew a license, funeral home directors would have to have to retake short classes on the applicable law, ethics and public health requirements.

“There is a general understanding that things must change," said Patty Salazar, executive director of the state agency that oversees funeral homes. "Colorado needs to and will do better by passing this legislation,”

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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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