Many Washington area funeral directors and embalmers have begun imposing extra fees for handling the bodies of people who die from the effects of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), according to an informal survey that found that some funeral homes tack on fees of up to $250.
Of the nearly three dozen funeral homes in the District, Maryland and Virginia contacted recently by The Washington Post, most said they already impose extra charges or plan to do so for handling the bodies of people who died of infectious diseases and that they were motivated by a fear of contagion from the AIDS virus.
Scientists have warned those handling the body fluids of AIDS patients to be careful not to stick themselves with a needle or otherwise break their skin so that the virus is not transmitted.
At the DeVol Funeral Home, 2222 Wisconsin Ave. NW, for example, free-lance embalmers are paid $150 extra to embalm AIDS bodies, according to John DeVol, a funeral director there, because the home's regular embalmers balked at handling the bodies.
"It's a matter of health," DeVol said.
Richard Rapp, owner and operator of the Richard Rapp Funeral Services in the District, who receives about seven AIDS bodies a month, said that when he is too busy to handle a body himself, he sometimes imposes a $50 charge that he gives as a tip to other embalmers who prepare bodies involving AIDS or hepatitis.
"They're taking a chance," Rapp said. "I was having trouble for a while finding an embalmer."
Across the country, people handling funeral arrangements for people with AIDS have found some funeral homes unwilling to accept bodies, while others impose extra fees or refuse to provide certain services, such as viewings. In Los Angeles, the family of a homosexual man who committed suicide has sued the Forest Lawn Mortuary for more than $10 million, contending the funeral was delayed because embalmers thought his body contained the AIDS virus.
In Maryland, the state board of morticians has been asked to investigate complaints that several Baltimore funeral directors said they would not handle bodies of those who died of AIDS complications. Neither the Virginia or District morticians board has received similar complaints.
Yet local funeral directors say that some of their employes have asked not to handle such cases. Area funeral homes increasingly are retaining free-lance embalmers because their own embalmers refuse to handle AIDS bodies.
Joseph Jenkins of the Johnson-Jenkins Funeral Home, 716 Kennedy St. NW, said he has trained two of his five embalmers to handle AIDS cases and charges families about $150 more because of the disposable materials and equipment used.
"We have ordered special kits to handle AIDS bodies from the supply houses," Jenkins said. "Unfortunately but realistically we'll have to do many more of these deaths. That's why we've had to make time for the special training."
Many funeral directors said they have not yet received a body of somebody who died after contracting AIDS but said they would charge more for the extra time and labor involved. "There would be extra preparatory services involved and that has to be reflected in the price," said Charles Diggs, a former Michigan congressman who now is a funeral director in Maryland.
Jim Graham, director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which provides a multitude of services for those with AIDS, said problems associated with funeral arrangements have not been as serious in the District as elsewhere because of Rapp's willingness to accept the bodies of those who died from the effects of AIDS.
"He has reduced the problem that we otherwise would have had," Graham said.
Several local funeral directors said their concerns about AIDS are worsened because not all hospitals and doctors tag bodies as infectious or list AIDS on death certificates.
"We had gotten three remains in a row that were AIDS and there was nothing on the death certificates," DeVol said. "This is not fair, not just for our protection, but because the statistics won't be accurate on the actual number of AIDS victims."
Dr. Martin Levy, head of the District's Preventive Health Services Administration, said he is aware that some certificates have not listed AIDS when the disease was present. For the last two months, his office has been collecting death certificates in cases in which AIDS might be involved as part of a study for the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to determine whether AIDS cases are being reported to health officials.
Doctors in the District, Virginia and Maryland are required to report cases of AIDS to their state public health departments.
Levy said funeral directors' fears about hospitals failing to tag bodies properly and fill in certificates for AIDS patients "indicates they're not taking precautions, as they should, every day with all cases."
"Embalmers and health care workers should handle any patient as if they were communicable," he said. "There's no need to do anything different with victims of AIDS."
Several local funeral directors said they treat AIDS bodies no differently than they treat others.
"Hepatitis and tuberculosis are greater dangers," said Robert Chambers, vice president of the Chambers Funeral Homes. He said no extra fees are added for those who die of infectious diseases.
"Any funeral director who charges extra for special protective garments is just playing the public for fools," he said.
Philip Rinaldi, a funeral director at the Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home in Silver Spring, said the home has not imposed extra charges on the three AIDS cases it has handled.
Richard Rendon, president of Columbia Mortuary Services, a District firm that performs embalming for area funeral homes, also said he does not add extra charges. "We treat it like a regular case," he said. "But I do think the hospitals aren't being fair to us because we're not warned ahead of time."
David Sauers, president of a Falls Church funeral parlor, said he charges up to $250 extra to handle the bodies of people who died of infectious diseases. Most of the AIDS bodies he has handled have been cremated. The extra fees cover special containers used to transport bodies and disposable materials to a crematorium and for disposable gloves, aprons and goggles, he said.
"Certain precautions have to be taken," Sauers said. "I'm trying to protect my health. It's nothing personally against those people."