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Ethics and the choice of cremation

by Jerri Haaven, Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant


Image: "Identity" by Natasha Mayers*

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ethics as: “…the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation; the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group <professional ethics>.”

The funerary and cremation industries place great emphasis on providing ethical services for the deceased and their families. They communicate this to customers. Imagine the horror then, if on the day of your mom’s funeral, you were notified by the funeral home that a mistake was made. You were told that your mom was accidentally cremated and that the public viewing service you arranged wasn’t possible.

That is exactly what happened to a family in New York this past December. The New York Times reported a tragic story of mistaken identity, which devastated two families as a result of the funeral home’s errors.

At the age of 81, Val-Jean McDonald passed away on December 18, 2015. Annie Pearl Little died at the age of 82 on Christmas Day 2015. As the story unfolds in The New York Times article, the two bodies were misidentified. McCall’s Bronxwood Funeral Home took care of the funeral arrangements for both women. Annie Pearl was cremated by mistake. Her family does not believe in cremation. In the case of Annie Pearl, The New York Times article of March 23, 2016 reports:

McCall’s Bronxwood Funeral Home admitted its mistake in a letter that Mr. Little showed a reporter. “Please accept my apologies for mistakenly having your mother Annie Little cremated,” the letter said. It asked for Mr. Little’s signature, which was to convey consent for McCall’s to amend documents to show that Ms. Little had been cremated. Mr. Little said he refused to sign.

In the case of Val-Jean McDonald, cremation was to follow an open casket viewing and memorial service. Relatives commented that the body in the coffin didn’t look like Val-Jean. That’s because it was the body of Annie Pearl, who was later cremated by mistake following the McDonald’s ceremony. The New York Times article of March 21, 2016 reports:

Mr. Arzt, the funeral home’s spokesman in the matter, said, “All aspects of the situation were shared with the appropriate government regulating agencies, and therefore we cannot say anything further.” On Monday, he added that the McDonald family would be reimbursed for all costs, and that the family of the other woman [Annie Pearl Little] was never charged for her cremation.

Ms. McDonald’s cremation was to be done at Woodlawn Cemetery. The article continues:

The director of Woodlawn Cemetery, David Ison, declined to comment. A spokesman for the Division of Cemeteries said there was no indication that the crematory violated any regulation; crematories cannot open coffins without good cause under state law, relying on funeral directors to provide the identity of the remains.

In another case, a lawsuit was filed last month against three funeral homes. The lawsuit alleges that Consuelo Rivera's sons were traumatized. The funeral homes involved with the care of their deceased mom mistakenly cremated and then lost Rivera's remains.

Are these honest mistakes? Or a lack of ethics? What should a family expect once a loved one dies and they are released into the care of a funeral home or crematory? What goes on between a crematorium and a funeral home?

How to establish positive identification in the choice of cremation

In a situation where cremation has been chosen, it’s important to request information from the service provider regarding positive identification. Simplicity LowCountry Cremation and Burial Services, Inc., a Charleston, South Carolina based company, facilitates a nine step identification process to ensure the identity of the deceased is verified every step of the way - from the time the decedent is taken into their care until the ashes are returned to the family.

National Cremation takes a similar approach. Identification of the deceased is first established at the place of death and an identification band is placed around the ankle, which includes the decedent’s name, date of birth, date and location of death. At the crematory, an assigned stainless steel identification disc, which is linked to the record of the deceased, is placed with, and remains with, the body. Following cremation, the identification disc is placed in the cremation urn with the cremated remains and returned to the family.

If something goes horribly wrong, a funeral home that performs cremation, as well as provides burial services, can be – and should be - charged with negligence. There are no “do overs.” It’s astonishing to discover the many cases of funeral home negligence.

When choosing cremation, how can I protect myself and loved ones?

  • Start your research early. Our blog “Working with a Funeral Home or Crematorium – What’s the Difference?” provides information and important questions to ask.
  • The Cremation Association of North America also provides a list of guidelines for choosing a cremation provider, and other factors you should consider when selecting a funeral home or crematory.
  • Know your rights. The Funeral Rule, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, makes it less likely you’ll be a victim of unnecessary up-selling when in the midst of your grief and that you only purchase goods and services you want, including urns for ashes. Funeral homes that display caskets must display one that is $500 or less.
  • Ask friends and family: We often ask for referrals for a good plumber or doctor. The same holds true when selecting a funeral home or a crematorium.
  • Do they offer guarantees?
  • If you suspect that mistakes have been made, or a funeral home has been negligent, the Funeral Consumers Alliance website can guide you with next steps to take, depending on your circumstances.
  • Trust your instinct. In doing your research, if you feel something isn’t right when visiting a funeral home, you’re probably right. Find a different establishment.

It’s probably fair to state that anyone who chooses to work in the death industry has their heart in the right place. It’s unlikely that negligence is intentional, but it happens.

*Image can be found here: 

Jerri Haaven is a freelance writer, and a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant. When caring for her dad, who suffered from dementia and COPD, Jerri struggled with the negative side effects of his illness. She developed positive outlets to express herself and recover from her loss. Today as a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant, she uses her skills to help people who are in the midst of their own personal story of grief and loss.