Northern Virginia funeral home fined for mishandling bodies

National Funeral Home in Falls Church will be subject to six unannounced inspections a year, the most ever ordered by the state.
National Funeral Home in Falls Church will be subject to six unannounced inspections a year, the most ever ordered by the state. (2009 Photo By Nikki Kahn/the Washington Post)
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By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Northern Virginia funeral home that acts as a regional embalming facility for a national corporation has been penalized by the state for violations that include improperly storing bodies in the facility's garage and hallways.

National Funeral Home and the Virginia Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers signed a consent order this week in which the Falls Church facility agreed to two years of probation, a $50,000 fine and six unannounced inspections each year. A two-year suspension was imposed but immediately stayed. It could take effect if the funeral home is found to have any violations in the next two years.

Employees at the funeral home raised concerns last year that hundreds of bodies were being mishandled at the facility. A Washington Post article in April 2009 detailed allegations that bodies had been left on hazardous-materials boxes and makeshift gurneys; deceased veterans were placed on garage racks for months while awaiting burial at Arlington National Cemetery; and some bodies were left exposed and leaking fluids.

Photographs taken in the funeral home documented the alleged abuses, and family members of the deceased said they had no idea that their loved ones' bodies had been taken to the facility and were not being properly stored in refrigerated areas.

State board officials said Wednesday that the $50,000 fine is one of the highest financial penalties ever handed to a funeral establishment in Virginia and that the six annual inspections are the most the board has ever ordered. By accepting a consent order, National Funeral Home and its parent company, Houston-based Service Corporation International, avoid the possibility of having their licenses revoked at a formal board hearing.

"Their behavior was not according to the law and the regulations," said Lisa Hahn, the board's executive director. "They are going to be closely monitored. The board has taken this very seriously."

Lisa Marshall, a spokeswoman for Service Corporation International, said the agreement is not an admission of guilt but is a way to put the issue to rest so that National Funeral Home and its employees can focus on serving clients. "It's a reflection of what we think is the right thing to do," Marshall said. "It was time to put this behind us."

Steven Napper, a former Maryland state trooper who worked as an embalmer at National Funeral Home, was the first to come forward with concerns about the conditions there. He provided evidence of the problems and allowed family members to learn how their relatives were being treated. Other employees confirmed his accounts.

Napper -- who recently opened his own funeral home in Maryland, Eternal Faith Funeral Services -- said Wednesday that he thinks coming forward was the right thing to do and that the punishment is appropriate.

"This was really the whole purpose," Napper said. "I just thought people should be treated a lot better than they were. I'm really happy to hear this."

Families of those whose bodies were stored in the garage were shocked to learn how their loved ones were treated and said it was a great indignity. Families of military veterans who later were buried at Arlington National Cemetery are pursuing civil lawsuits against the funeral home.

The revelations about the problems sparked quick action last year by the state board and Virginia legislators.

Del. Kenneth Cooper Alexander (D-Norfolk), the only licensed funeral director in the General Assembly, sponsored legislation that requires bodies to be refrigerated and requires a funeral home to tell family members where -- and under what conditions -- the deceased will be stored before burial or cremation. The House and Senate unanimously passed the bill, which takes effect July 1.

"We should honor and treat our dead with dignity," Alexander said. "The conditions that are in the bill, I seriously believe that they are needed and are good for the industry. It was an effort by everyone to do the right thing."

Marshall said that National Funeral Home has installed additional refrigeration units and wants to maintain a high level of integrity.

"National Funeral Home has been part of its community for a long time," Marshall said. "We want to remain important to the community and want to demonstrate the high level of service the community has come to expect from us."

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