Funeral Home Firm Service Corporation International Faces Lawsuits, Complaints

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009

A hole began to appear in the fresh dirt over Jordan Hale's tiny grave at Mount Comfort Cemetery weeks after her burial, prompting cemetery workers to cover the site with a granite slab.

Mourning the loss of her stillborn daughter in July 2007 and wondering what was happening, Nsombi Hale was informed that a grave marker she had chosen would not fit and that her baby would have to be reburied. But Hale later learned from a cemetery employee that that wasn't the real problem.

Instead, Jordan's small white coffin -- called a cherub -- had been placed in a shallow grave and covered by just eight inches of soil. When Hale went to witness the disinterment, workers pulled it out in a matter of five minutes, she said.

"It never crossed my mind that something questionable was going on," Nsombi Hale said, tears slowly rolling down her face. "But it was clear that the grave wasn't deep enough. They mishandled the remains of my baby, and she deserved more than that."

The Alexandria cemetery is one of 12 in Virginia owned by Service Corporation International, a Houston-based funeral services conglomerate that is facing allegations of mishandling as many as 200 bodies over the past year at a central preparation facility in Falls Church. SCI owns more than 1,700 funeral homes and cemeteries across the country, making it the largest company of its kind. State regulators are investigating.

A customer, contractors and several current and former employees told The Washington Post in an article this month that conditions at SCI's central facility at National Funeral Home were disrespectful and unsanitary. They said that bodies of retired military officers destined for Arlington National Cemetery were stored on a rack in the garage for weeks or months and that bodies that had not been embalmed were left in unrefrigerated areas of the facility, where they decomposed and leaked fluids.

Family members of retired Army Col. Andrew Degraff have since filed lawsuits in Fairfax County against SCI. Hale also filed a lawsuit against the company last week in Fairfax, her attorney saying that she had been traumatized by watching her daughter's grave opened.

"Throughout the disinterment and reinterment, the disturbing odor from the cherub permeated the air at the site, sickening [Hale], who forced herself to remain until her daughter had a proper burial," said the lawsuit, filed by attorney Jack Burgess.

Virginia law and the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation do not specify how deep graves should be, but cemetery officials in Northern Virginia said coffins are generally buried with at least 18 inches of soil above them.

SCI Virginia Funeral Services, a division of SCI, said in a statement that it discovered the problem with Jordan's grave and "proactively self-reported the issue to the family and made every effort to resolve it."

"Although Virginia law does not require a minimum depth of interment, once we determined that the interment did not have 18 inches of depth from the top of the casket to the top of ground level, we alerted Ms. Hale to request her permission to disinter and re-inter Jordan P. Hale," the company said in a statement, also expressing sympathy for Hale's loss. "As part of our commitment to transparency, if we make a mistake, we are committed to doing the right thing."

Hale said she now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has nightmares and trouble trusting people.

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