Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia funeral home employee loses licence after cremating wrong body

'The events considered in this inquiry were unprecedented and extremely upsetting for families involved'

Elizabeth McMillan - CBC News

March 10, 2018

The Berwick Funeral Chapel, operated by Serenity Funeral Home, is where Sandra Bennett's funeral took place. Because of a body mix-up, she was wrongly cremated. (CBC)

The board responsible for overseeing funeral directors in Nova Scotia has revoked the licence of one man for his role in a mix-up at an Annapolis Valley funeral home that had a woman mistakenly cremated and another embalmed and presented to the wrong family.

David Farmer, of Serenity Funeral Home and Crematorium in Berwick will no longer be allowed to work as a funeral director or embalmer, according to a ruling released Friday by the Nova Scotia Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.

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The provincial government's Registrar of Funeral Services also announced it will suspend the business from doing cremations for 30 days, starting April 1. It will still be able to hold funerals during that time. 

The board held a professional misconduct inquiry on Feb. 13 in relation to the mix-up of the bodies of Sandra Bennett, 65, and Myrtle Wilson, 96, who died a day apart.

"This situation is unprecedented. It has never happened in Nova Scotia, and so we certainly had to look at procedure and process," board chair Adam Tipert said at the provincial legislature Friday. 

He said he hopes the two women's families "find some peace and solace through this whole process even though they've been completely erased of the opportunity to grieve their loved ones."

Bennett's family refused to take part in the inquiry, saying the process was one-sided and lacked transparency

"Moving forward, we do want to try to open the door a little bit so that the public … feel a little more included in the process," Tipert said.

According to Friday's decision, Farmer mistakenly cremated Bennett after the two bodies arrived at a facility in Port Williams in the same vehicle. 

Sandra Bennett, 65, died on Dec. 20 after a lengthy illness. (Bennett family)

Wilson, who was supposed to be cremated, was instead embalmed and presented as Bennett to the other woman's family. 

Before Bennett's open-casket visitation was set to begin in December, family members said Bennett's widower, Gary, pointed out to funeral home staff that the body of the woman in the casket was not his wife.

The board unanimously found Farmer guilty of negligence and professional misconduct. 

Wilson was eventually cremated and funeral home staff told her family about the mix-up four days after it happened, shortly before her funeral service.

'Human error and mistaken assumption'

The board's decision said both bodies were transported without identifying bracelets or supporting documentation. Ted McCreadie, apprentice funeral director, told the board he placed handwritten labels identifying the two women on each stretcher. 

Farmer said he didn't see the labels, but was confident he had correctly identified the women after assuming the body on the left side of the van was the first one that staff picked up, the decision said. 

It found Farmer should have verified each woman's identity before registering, processing, and cremating or embalming their bodies. 

While the board found Farmer was co-operative and showed "genuine remorse," its decision said he "did not understand how [his] assumptions and carelessness directly led to this tragic event."

Tony Facey is the owner of Serenity Funeral Home and was not disciplined because of the mix-up. (FuneralPlanningMadeSimple.com)

The board also looked at the actions of the Serenity's owner and operator, Anthony Facey, and is not taking any disciplinary action against him. Tipert said they found he had "no involvement" in the mix-up. 

However, the board warned Facey to "give careful consideration" to the impact of instructions he gives staff and a "concerning" decision to leave Wilson's body unattended in a van for several hours on Dec. 20, prior to it being delivered to the facility where it was mistakenly embalmed.

The decision said Facey told staff not to travel from Berwick to the Port Williams facility due to poor road weather. It said Facey should have also advised them to place Wilson's body inside the business's Berwick chapel.

Legislative changes recommended

In a statement, Service Nova Scotia said it has accepted the board's recommendations, which include making legislative changes to require funeral homes and crematoriums to label people's bodies as soon as they take possession of them, high fines and a review of bylaws and legislation to look at how to make the way complaints are dealt with more transparent.

"We want to instill in Nova Scotians that funeral directors are trustworthy and they do their job well," Tipert said. 

Serenity is one of only a handful of privately owned funeral businesses in Nova Scotia, operating funeral homes in the communities of New Ross, Berwick, Wolfville and Coldbrook.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth McMillan

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past eight years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. She can be found on twitter @elizmcmillan.

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