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Funeral Home Employees Say Bodies Were Mishandled

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A former embalmer at National Funeral Home in Falls Church, Va., exposes how some bodies were stored in the facility's unrefrigerated garage.Video by Whitney Shefte/washingtonpost.com

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By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009

Ronald Federici's father, a retired Army colonel, had just died, and Federici wanted to escort his body to Demaine Funeral Home in Alexandria. But the driver who came to pick up the remains at the hospital said he wasn't going to Demaine, he was going to some other place.

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Upset and confused, Federici followed the van driver, who pulled up to National Funeral Home in Falls Church. When the white garage door opened at the edge of a cemetery just off Lee Highway, Federici said, the foul odor of decomposition smacked him in the face. A body lay on a gurney in the garage near a rack holding coffins, and the walk-in cooler where his father was to be left was filled with exposed bodies.

"The stench was horrific," Federici, 53, said about the cooler. "Bodies were laying buck naked all over the place. There was no dignity whatsoever. It was disgusting, degrading and humiliating."

What Federici witnessed Dec. 6 echoed what embalmer-turned-whistleblower Steven Napper had been complaining about for months, first to his supervisors, then to the state. Napper documented the atrocities he saw in notes and photographs and turned them over to authorities.

Napper, a retired Maryland state trooper, had been hired in May by National Funeral Home, which also acts as a regional clearinghouse that embalms and stores bodies for four other Washington area funeral homes -- Arlington Funeral Home, Danzansky-Goldberg Memorial Chapel in Rockville, and Demaine Funeral Home in Alexandria and Springfield. From May to February, when he quit, Napper said that the walk-in coolers could not hold all the bodies and that a manager told employees to store them in unrefrigerated areas.

During his time there, Napper said, as many as 200 corpses were left on makeshift gurneys in the garage, in hallways and in a back room, unrefrigerated and leaking fluids onto the floor. Some were stored on cardboard boxes or were balanced on biohazard containers. At least half a dozen veterans destined for the hallowed ground at Arlington National Cemetery were left in their coffins on a garage rack, Napper said.

He began to take photographs in December and presented them to the Virginia Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers. Federici and Napper's observations -- accounts supported by three others who have worked there -- have led to a probe by the state board, although board officials said they were prohibited by law from disclosing such an inquiry. Several people said they were interviewed by a board investigator in recent weeks.

What was supposed to be a dignified end to thousands of lives had instead deteriorated into a haphazard operation, Napper said, more about money than honoring the dead. Part of the largest funeral services conglomerate in the world -- Houston-based Service Corporation International -- the company did not want to spend money to address the issues, Napper said supervisors told him.

"It was disturbing and disrespectful and unethical," Napper, 34, said. "I never could have imagined what I saw there or the things we were asked to do. These are people's loved ones, and they never should have been treated this way."

Representatives from Arlington Funeral Home, Danzansky-Goldberg Memorial Chapel, Demaine Funeral Home in Alexandria and National Funeral Home referred calls to the SCI corporate offices in Houston.

Robert Malinow, location manager at Demaine in Springfield, said he was not aware of anything other than the highest standards at the central facility.

"Service Corporation International has always represented to me that we carry out the highest standards and professional behavior within our industry and that we do not tolerate exceptions to those rules," Malinow said. "Behavior such as this would not occur at my location. We do not tolerate this behavior, and we only ascribe to the highest standards."


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