Friday, January 23, 2015

TOP STORY >> Undertaker shuts, giving up license

Leader staff writer

The state Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors levied a $10,000 fine and accepted the voluntarily surrendered licenses of Arkansas Funeral Care in Jacksonville and its owner on Friday.

The board will not pursue criminal charges, such as abuse of corpse, as part of the agreement. Owner LeRoy Wood will not be able to reapply for a license in the future.

Criminal charges could still be filed if police determine a crime has been committed. The agreement also states any investigation of the home’s embalmer, Ed Snow, will be handled separately.

The decision was based on testimony from inspector Leslie Stokes that the board heard during an emergency teleconference on Wednesday.

The board shut down the home after finding that it had violated several state laws, including one that requires bodies to be refrigerated, buried or cremated within 24 hours.

A board member asked Stokes if she had photographed the conditions, and the inspector said she had.

Stokes reported that Arkansas Funeral Care’s cooler was “filled beyond capacity with bodies” on Jan. 12. There were about 25 bodies in the cooler, she reported.

Thirty-one bodies were removed from the home after Wednesday’s vote. They were sent to the state Crime Laboratory and the Pulaski County coroner’s office.

On Friday, Wood’s legal counsel proposed a $5,500 fine, but that offer was rejected in favor of the stiffer punishment. He has 60 days to pay the $5,000 levied against him, $2,500 levied against the home and $2,500 levied against its crematorium.

Wood also agreed to refund all the families for services that were paid for but not provided.

The Little Rock conference room the board met in Friday was crowded with people.

Several spoke about their bad experiences with Arkansas Funeral Care while one woman defended Wood and his business.

Patricia Parchman, one of the home’s customers, said she was unsure whether the ashes she had in an urn at home were her son’s remains.

She said the sides of her loved one’s body were sunken and his face was black when his body arrived at the church for a planned open-casket funeral.

One of the board members told her there was no way to test the ashes for DNA.

Parchman’s husband said, “What’s going on? You know, can you answer that to all these families that have got these feelings? Even an apology is not going to take care of that. This is lifelong and everlasting.”

Parchman implored, “Where’s the love?”

Both asked for a stiffer penalty before the board increased the fines.

Jason Ray, who had also been a customer, accused the home’s staff of throwing family heirlooms from the hearse at the cemetery where his mother was buried.

But another woman, who didn’t identify herself, said she had known Wood for years and had attended a lot of funerals he had performed. “They were all good. I don’t know what’s happened in all of this, but he has been a good man and has helped a lot of people,” she said.

The next speaker said the home lost her loved one’s death certificate and that she would have to pay for a cremation again.

Another woman said her family was pressured to pay for services the same day the board shut the home down.

A disabled veteran said he wasn’t satisfied with how Arkansas Funeral Care handled his wife’s funeral. “I’d hate to think that he did this to any other vets in this country who have given their lives for this country and for him. May God have mercy on you.”

One other former customer also spoke. She said the body of her brother-in-law leaked fluids into his casket during an Arkansas Funeral Care service.

Several whispers in the room indicated families might pursue civil lawsuits against the home.

Stokes said Wednesday she had observed at least seven bodies outside the cooler that had not been embalmed and four bodies in the prep room. One body in the prep room was embalmed but uncovered, the inspector reported.

In the center of the cooler, one body was stacked on top of another that was on a cot, she said. Stokes said another body strapped to a cot outside the cooler was “decomposing” and “obviously leaking body fluids.”

She also reported seeing what appeared to be blood splatter on the walls, bodily fluids on the floor and ashes mixed in a barrel containing pieces of flooring.

The doors to the embalming room and holding facility were unlocked, Stokes added. She said she was able to enter both without alerting any of the staff.

Stokes inspected the business Jan. 12-16, after former employee Mike Jones filed a complaint with the board.

Jones alleged that there were bloodstains on the prep room’s walls and 24 bodies stacked outside the cooler. He also accused the embalmer, Ed Snow, of cremating two bodies at once and signing off an apprentice who is licensed but doesn’t know how to embalm.

Wood and Snow denied all of Jones’ allegations in a written response to the complaint.

The board reportedly received a second and similar complaint from Darriel Ezell, owner of Clinton Funeral Service in Clinton, on Jan. 16. But that was not discussed at Friday’s hearing.

Stokes said during the teleconference that she asked Snow on Jan. 12 whether stacking bodies in the cooler was an ethical practice. His response was that they would be moved when the home got a cot, according to the inspector.

And Stokes added while addressing the board on Wednesday, “I have never encountered this on any previous inspection that I have been on at any other funeral home.”

Jeff Smith, president of the Arkansas Funeral Directors Association, released a statement this week calling the findings “shocking and disturbing” and offering the assistance of other caring and loving funeral homes to the families that were involved.