Whatever Happened To ... the embalmer who blew the whistle?

Steven Napper has opened his own funeral home in Camp Springs.
Steven Napper has opened his own funeral home in Camp Springs. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)

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By Josh White
Sunday, February 20, 2011

Steven Napper had had enough, and in his case that meant he had seen too many bodies haphazardly placed in a Falls Church funeral home's garage, deceased veterans resting on racks for months awaiting burial, and practices that were generally disrespectful to the dead.

So the embalmer -- a retired Maryland state trooper -- chose to become a high-profile whistleblower, telling Virginia authorities about abuses he had witnessed within the nation's largest funeral services company. He then explained it all in a front-page Washington Post investigation in 2009. He left National Funeral Home and its parent Service Corporation International just as the situation reached its peak.

"I just wanted to do the right thing for the deceased and for their families," Napper said. "I know I did the right thing."

It was a difficult decision for Napper, and he worried that his reputation as a whistleblower might make it tough to land a job. Napper had left National and was working at another funeral home when the story came out. His co-workers there were surprised but also very supportive.

"They thought it was brave," he said. "They didn't treat me any differently."

Some families would come in with copies of the story, asking if it was him -- his photo was in the paper -- and thanking him for coming forward.

Negative comments, however, flowed through the industry in whispers. Napper said no one confronted him directly, but he has heard from associates that people privately suspect he came forward for money -- though he got nothing in return.

Then the Virginia Board for Funeral Directors and Embalmers found SCI responsible for inappropriate treatment of bodies and issued one of the harshest fines it has ever meted out. Virginia legislators, spurred by what Napper had witnessed, changed Virginia laws to require funeral homes to follow stricter methods of storing and handling bodies.

"I'm glad the changes have occurred, but I'm not happy that we had to go through what happened for those changes to occur," Napper said. "My message now is that I hope families don't lose faith in the funeral business, because there are a lot of good funeral homes and firms out there."

He decided he wanted to run one of those good funeral homes and struck out on his own, opening Eternal Faith Funeral Service in Camp Springs last March. As in any small business, it has taken time for Napper to get his footing, but he said things are picking up.

"The more I thought about it, the more I realized that if I want to do things the right way, what better way to do that than to have control of it myself?" Napper said. "I don't regret anything, as tough as it's been."

READ THE ORIGINAL STORY: 'I Never Could Have Imagined' (Post, April 5, 2009)


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