Funeral home mix-up that saw body mistakenly cremated 'can't happen again,' minister says

The minister responsible for the operation of funeral homes in Nova Scotia says it's 'unacceptable' that a funeral home in the Annapolis Valley mixed up bodies, resulting in a mistaken cremation.

Service Nova Scotia working closely with funeral director oversight board on 'full-scale investigation'

Sandra Bennett, 65, died on Dec. 20, 2017, after a lengthy illness. (Bennett family)

The minister responsible for the operation of funeral homes in Nova Scotia says it's "unacceptable" that a funeral home in the Annapolis Valley mixed up bodies, resulting in the mistaken cremation of one, vowing "it can't happen again."

"The fact that there's bodies being switched in and out, and that we are here in the first place having this conversation, is very troubling," Service Nova Scotia Minister Geoff MacLellan said Thursday.

MacLellan called the situation "tragic and devastating" for the families involved and said his department is working closely with the Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, which is doing a "full-scale investigation."

"This is not a small detail at a funeral home," he said. "This is mixing up people — it can't happen."

Call to suspend Serenity licence

The Funeral Service Association of Nova Scotia represents funeral directors and funeral homes in the province. President Alan MacLeod Jr. wrote to the minister Thursday, saying it had learned of the mistake through media coverage and had not been contacted by Service Nova Scotia.

MacLeod said the case was then the subject of a special meeting of the association's directors.

"We request that your office immediately suspend all licences of Serenity Lindsay Annapolis Valley Funeral Homes and Chapels until a complete investigation has determined the cause of this devastating mix up," he said. 

A recent CBC News investigation found that Serenity Funeral Home in Berwick, N.S., mixed up the bodies of three women.

Family members say that before an open-casket visitation for 65-year-old Sandra Bennett, the funeral home staff presented a woman who was not their loved one.

Staff initially disputed that, they said, but eventually brought in another casket containing a body dressed in Bennett's clothing. That, too, was not Bennett. The family said it had to argue once more with staff.

The Berwick Funeral Chapel, operated by Serenity Funeral Home, is where Sandra Bennett's funeral took place. (CBC)

Family members were eventually told Bennett had been mistakenly cremated, which was not her final wish.

According to Adam Tipert, the chair of the Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, the funeral home only informed his organization that two bodies — not three — were involved in the mix-up.

Multiple family members are adamant there were three.

'We're going to get this right'

MacLellan, whose department licenses funeral homes, said that discrepancy concerns him but he is not yet willing to withdraw Serenity's licence. He cautioned, however, that could be revisited at a later date.

"If there's anything that has to change, it will be changed," MacLellan said. "We're going to work closely with the board. We're going to get this right."

Service Nova Scotia Minister Geoff MacLellan said he is not yet willing to withdraw the funeral home's licence, but that idea could be revisited in the future. (CBC)

The board has not informed MacLellan of any previous concerns about Serenity, he said, but if it recommends the funeral home's licence be revoked, government will act.

Serenity is one of only a handful of privately owned funeral homes in the province. It operates funeral homes in Coldbrook, Wolfville and New Ross, in addition to the one in Berwick.

Tony Facey is the owner of Serenity Funeral Home. (FuneralPlanningMadeSimple.com)
Serenity owner Tony Facey has not returned numerous calls made by CBC News. However, his lawyer, Bernie Conway, said in an email that "Serenity Funeral Home takes utmost pride in the services it provides and takes this matter very seriously."

Tipert said he is not aware of anyone else in the province being cremated by mistake. Remains at larger centres have been mixed up, he said, but those situations were easily corrected.

The board currently does not publicly report on the number, nature or resolution of complaints against Nova Scotia's funeral homes, but MacLellan said that is something that will be considered as part of the board's investigation.

About the Author

Yvonne Colbert

Consumer Watchdog

Yvonne Colbert has been a journalist for nearly 35 years, covering everything from human interest stories to the provincial legislature. These days, she's focused on helping consumers get the most bang for their bucks and avoid being ripped off. She invites story ideas at yvonne.colbert@cbc.ca.

with files from CBC News