The Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors debacle is not an "all's well that ends well" story.
True, the state ultimately negotiated the surrender of the business' license amid some unsettling allegations and lawmakers passed a new state law making it illegal for funeral homes and body brokers to operate under the same roof.
But Erin McIntyre's Sunday story exposed some serious concerns about the regulatory environment surrounding businesses charged with safely handling human remains in a dignified manner.
In short, the Department of Regulatory Agencies, which oversees funeral homes and crematories, seems to lack the teeth to enforce the state's mortuary science code. Moreover, complaints about specific mortuaries aren't made public until cases are closed, but the agency doesn't have the authority to inspect the businesses or the power to gather evidence. It must enlist law enforcement officials to secure and execute search warrants.
McIntyre's reporting showed that DORA officials were receiving complaints about Sunset Mesa as early as 2014, and not just from paying customers. Officials in Montrose and Delta counties and state officials shared concerns with how Sunset Mesa handled death certificates and disposition permits and a Grand Junction funeral home filed a formal complaint, one of several reports that eventually led the attorney general's office to get involved.
"The agency kept the investigations open for years, rendering the complaints unavailable for public review," McIntyre wrote. "The lack of resolution allowed the agency to hold the contents of the complaints secret, in a limbo that didn't have a time limit and no requirement for the agency to refer them for disciplinary actions that would close the cases and release the information to the public."
DORA doesn't have "the right of entry" into businesses it's supposed to regulate — a fact that Diana McBride finds appalling. McBride's family filed a complaint after a loved one's cremains were first lost and then later returned, but contained small metal parts from a watch and zipper. The deceased relative was only wearing pajamas when he died.
"Restaurants get inspected, for goodness sake," McBride said. "The fact that a funeral home can be just a mom-and-pop thing and whoever's running it can do with it whatever they want is not OK."
If the Colorado Funeral Directors Association had its way, the state would require licensing for all funeral directors. Colorado hasn't required licensing since 1982, even though the association has lobbied without success to restore it. Who opposes this? The industry seems to recognize the potential for abuse, yet lawmakers are reluctant to add this extra layer of consumer protection.
There seem to be some easy ways to fix cracks in the system. Require DORA to resolve complaints in a timely manner so that those records can be made public. Allow DORA's investigators the right of entry to enter premises as health inspectors do with restaurants. And restore licensing for funeral home operators.
As it stands, DORA is nothing more than a clearinghouse or repository for complaints. Its inability to enforce regulations makes it an ineffective consumer protection agency.
"The reality of it is, when a loved one passes away and you are tasked with dealing with their final disposition, you assume the funeral home operates with a standard of care," McBride said. "Come to find out, that standard doesn't exist."