A South Salt Lake mortuary says it plans to fight a Thursday emergency order by state regulators to shut down after numerous allegations of misconduct emerged about the business.
An attorney for Carver Mortuary Service, Matt Lewis, said the company’s directors, Tanner Carver and Shane Westmoreland, were surprised by the order suspending their licenses, and first learned of it from media reports Thursday night. State regulators had spent the day interviewing witnesses and investigators in a closed-door Salt Lake City meeting before issuing the order.
Regulators also suspended the mortuary’s license, which means the facility must shut down for now. The mortuary and its directors on Friday said they filed a request for a hearing to contest the emergency order, made by the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing (DOPL).
“We are committed to serving our customers and to complying with all regulations governing funeral homes,” the company said in a statement.
“We are concerned about the allegations made by DOPL and are highly confident that no personal effects were removed from any decedent and that any remains received by family members were properly segregated and identified,” the statement said, adding the mortuary would cooperate with the department’s probe.
Two former employees alleged to state regulators that mortuary workers had mixed ashes and cremated bodies without identification; left bodies unrefrigerated; and stole jewelry from the deceased. The two witnesses claimed many employees, including themselves, were not licensed for the work they were conducting. Both also alleged the facility was unsanitary.
Jennifer Bolton, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Commerce, said she could not discuss how the department initially learned of the allegations.
Lewis said the mortuary first received a citation from DOPL on Sept. 11, regarding “technical violations,” such as unlicensed employees conducting cremations and similar activities. The business later received a DOPL subpoena demanding copies of records, he said, but it did not expect to lose its license.
One prior employee who testified at the Thursday hearing, Erin Christensen, could not be reached for comment Friday. Another former employee who testified, Robert Price, did not answer calls to two numbers listed for him; a third was disconnected.
Carver told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday the allegations were “completely unfounded.” He and Westmoreland told other news outlets the two men were “disgruntled employees.” Lewis declined to discuss those claims Friday, though he said the former employees only worked at Carver Mortuary a short amount of time.
”They were clearly unhappy with what happened here,” Lewis said.
In addition to testimony from Christensen and Price, DOPL investigators also obtained cremation logs from the facility that “revealed a pattern” of problems with tracking remains. When cremation occurs, a metal coin accompanies the body into the cremation chamber, and stays with the remains to ensure they are properly handled and given to the correct survivor. State law outlines an extensive documentation process mortuaries must follow before and during the cremation process.
But at Carver Mortuary Service, those identifying coins were sometimes “designated as lost,” and then later, the same coin “reappears attached to another deceased person,” investigators stated.
In addition, authorities found that the mortuary’s files showed that dates and times of cremation didn’t match a log book meant to track them. There was no explanation for those discrepancies, investigators said. The documents also said the mortuary failed to cooperate with investigators when records were requested.
“There is a high risk that deceased bodies and cremated remains are being misidentified,” the order stated.
State law requires funeral home employees be licensed with the state if they conduct embalming, cremation, or other similar activities regarding bodies. The state grants licenses for funeral service directors and director interns for these duties, and the licenses must be renewed every two years.
The former Carver Mortuary employees, Price and Christensen, told state officials they had been hired to remove bodies from various locations and bring them back to the mortuary. The position does not require a license.
But the men said they were also instructed to carry out cremations, and other unlicensed employees did the same. Price said he cremated about 50 bodies during his employment, between February and May, and also was instructed to sew up a body following an autopsy.
Carver Mortuary held contracts for cremation and other services with a number of other funeral companies and hospitals in Utah, according to the order, which said those companies must immediately find another mortuary to conduct the work.
The Utah Office of the Medical Examiner finalized a contract with the mortuary about two months ago to transport bodies from around the state to its Salt Lake City facility, said spokesman Tom Hudachko. The agency immediately suspended its contract with Carver Mortuary, he said, and will terminate the deal if the mortuary’s license is not reinstated.
For now, Hudachko said the medical examiner will rely on local mortuary companies around the state to transport the bodies, a system it previously used.
In addition to setting standards for mortuary operations, state law also says funeral homes are subject to inspection during normal business hours by DOPL, or a health department official — though it does not stipulate when or how often the inspections should be conducted. A recent Associated Press investigation found funeral home regulations vary widely from state to state, with some requiring annual inspections, and others none at all.
“We‘re a complaint-driven agency,” Bolton, the Utah Department of Commerce spokeswoman, said of DOPL. “If we receive a complaint about a licensee, we would go out and inspect their facility, but I don’t have any information that reflects regular audits or inspections done by DOPL.“