A Maryland state agency charged with overseeing funeral homes began an investigation yesterday into the mistaken cremation of a 20-month-old girl who was in the care of a Laurel funeral home that was supposed to prepare her for burial, authorities said.
Michael Ruck, vice president of the Board of Morticians, said the agency has begun looking into last week's cremation of Akilah Austin of Glen Burnie, who died of complications of pneumonia Sept. 10, two months after she underwent a heart transplant at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
A wake was scheduled for Sept. 16, but when the girl's parents went to the Fleck Funeral Home in Laurel to do her hair and nails, they were told by funeral director Shawn Wells that the baby had been mistakenly cremated, relatives said.
Akilah's parents, Lisa and Marvin Austin, were later presented with an urn containing their daughter's ashes. They were told that there had been two babies at Fleck and that somehow the bodies had been mixed up, relatives said. The couple remained in seclusion yesterday.
Funeral directors said guidelines established by the National Funeral Directors Association and the Cremation Association of North America call for a system of checks and verifications to ensure that bodies are not mixed up from the time they are removed from the hospital to the time they reach the funeral home and are embalmed or cremated.
The funeral directors association president-elect, Bob Biggins, said hospitals place identification tags on bodies before they are transported to funeral homes, and the tags are checked before bodies are removed from the hospital morgue. Another check is recommended when the bodies arrive at the funeral home, Biggins said.
"Guidelines call for the family to come in and do [an] identification, whether it is an immediate family member or someone designated by the family to view the remains prior to the cremation," he said.
To make sure the remains are identifiable, a fire-resistant coin with certain identifying information is placed with the body before cremation, Biggins said.
Fleck has a crematorium, but it could not be determined whether Akilah's body was cremated there.
Relatives of Akilah were never asked to identify her remains at the funeral home, and when her aunts asked whether the funeral home would like a picture to help them identify her, Wells declined, said Lucille Czechanski, Akilah's aunt.
"I don't think that any [relatives] saw her after she left the hospital," Czechanski said.
Wells referred calls for comment to market director Christopher Downey, who referred a reporter to a statement the company released last week: "We regret that an unfortunate event has happened, and we are working with the family to make it right."
The cremation was the latest of several tragic turns for the Austins since Akilah was found to have a genetic mutation known as Cardiac Troponin I, which rendered her heart unable to pump blood effectively. She was placed on a heart-lung machine and later implanted with an artificial heart. In July, Akilah underwent a heart transplant. The heart worked well, but infections set in. She died just before midnight Sept. 10.
Ruck said Board of Morticians members plan to talk to the Austins and "to gather as much information as possible" to determine what occurred before deciding on possible punitive action. If a complaint is received, the funeral directors association also will review the situation to determine whether the funeral home would be sanctioned, Biggins said.