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.
"I needed to be there for Jordan," Hale said, adding that the beautiful ceremony weeks earlier, with balloons and goodbyes, was dignified and special, in contrast to the shovels and backhoe that accompanied the reinterment. "I wanted to stay to make sure it was done properly."
In a letter to Burgess on Feb. 14, SCI Market Director Christopher Downey apologized to Hale but said, "Mt. Comfort performed its services as requested," and noted that the cemetery provided Hale with a refund check of $2,488.75. She has not cashed it.
Downey, who has management and oversight responsibilities for SCI's 13 locations in the Washington area, wrote that the initial burial was "too shallow" and that a four-inch-thick granite slab was placed over the grave after "an animal had been spotted by the gravesite." Downey also wrote that cemetery employees strongly advised Hale not to view the disinterment but "despite our warning and insistence, she demanded to be present."
He offered to donate $500 to charity in Jordan's name as recompense, according to the letter.
Whistleblowers who have brought the allegations about mishandling of bodies at SCI's central preparation facility have said that Downey is at the heart of problems there. Steven Napper, a former Maryland state trooper who worked as an SCI embalmer, said he went to Downey in January to raise concerns about the inappropriate storage of bodies in the garage and unsanitary conditions.
Napper said Downey, whose office is at National Funeral Home, brushed him off and appeared to ignore the complaints. Napper later reported his concerns to a Virginia regulatory board and resigned in February. After the Post article appeared, SCI launched an internal investigation.
"I went to Chris Downey personally in January to explain that there was not enough storage capacity at central and to discuss my concerns about the handling of the deceased," Napper said. "He knew all about it, but he did not respond."
Requests to speak with Downey were referred to an SCI spokeswoman.
"All of us want to know the facts behind what happened, and we're diligently conducting an investigation," said Lisa Marshall, the spokeswoman. "If we find wrongdoing, we will promptly take the necessary corrective action required."
Family members of two military officers whose bodies were stored on unrefrigerated garage racks said Downey contacted them just before the first Post story ran and said that the allegations were false and were coming from a disgruntled former employee.
Richard Morgan Jr., whose father, Maj. Richard Morgan, was left in his light oak coffin on the racks before his burial at Arlington in February, said Downey backed down when Morgan said he had seen photographs of the conditions in the garage.
"I got a little irate, and I said, 'I've seen the pictures, and you can't dispute the pictures. These aren't just allegations,' " Morgan said. He added that Downey offered him a refund and that he recently received a check for $14,111, though he said he does not plan to cash it as he pursues legal options.
Hale, who has a 9-month-old daughter named Zoe, said she is suing SCI because she wants things to change at Mount Comfort Cemetery. Burgess, her attorney, said the company already appears to have acknowledged that the burial did not go as it should have.
"It was done out of laziness, it appears, and out of a desire not to dig a deep hole," he said. "I don't think it was done maliciously, but it was done fairly recklessly. Nsombi wants to make sure it doesn't happen to someone else. With big corporations, sometimes the only way to get their attention is to get into their pocketbook."