Nova Scotia

Cape Breton funeral director says wrongful cremation 'can happen again'

Joe Curry says Nova Scotia's regulations are too lax and they don't address problems outside the scope of funeral directors.

Joe Curry says regulations are too lax and they don't address problems outside the scope of funeral directors

Cape Breton funeral director Joe Curry lost his licence after being accused of cremating the wrong body, but he is appealing. Curry says he followed all the rules and blames a hospital. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

A Cape Breton funeral director who lost his licence after cremating the wrong body says the same thing could happen to another director, unless the Nova Scotia government clarifies the regulations for identifying and transferring human remains.

Joe Curry said he followed all the regulations on his end and any error in identification or handling of the body happened before he took custody from the Cape Breton Regional Hospital in December.

"I'm asking the question, 'How did that happen?' I've done everything that I'm required to do, in the order that I'm required to do it and with very full consideration of the wishes of that family," Curry said. "The hospital made a mistake. They got mixed up. However they got mixed up, they did bring out the wrong body ... [and] that can happen again."

Curry, who is 80, has had several careers and been a funeral director for more than 25 years.

He came out of retirement last year to help out the Forest Haven Funeral Home near Sydney, he said, and provided funeral services for more than 150 families since then, before his licence was revoked.

Curry said he will be appealing to get his licence back, just on principle.

Problems beyond a funeral director's control

"I am not looking for a job," he said. "I retired four times. Enjoyed my retirement every time [and] was asked to show up to serve people that were not being served."

Curry grew up in the longstanding family funeral business in Glace Bay and said he has received an outpouring of support from families he has helped.

Curry said he is being blamed for a problem in the process that is beyond the control of him or any other funeral director.

"The only error in that procedure was made at the hospital and ... I'm not here to be accusatory. I just know that in my heart and in everything I practised, I have no blame for any element of this particular situation. None."

This is the second mistaken cremation in the last five years. As a result, the Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors has called on the province for improved training requirements for funeral directors and stronger regulations around cremation and body identification and tracking, known as chain of custody.

The disciplinary decision by the board noted, among other things, that Curry did not maintain the chain of custody.

In 2018, the former Liberal government made some regulatory changes after a woman from Berwick was wrongly cremated, saying that should never happen again.

Gary Bennett, whose late wife Sandra was accidentally cremated in December 2017, said some of the changes moved things "in the right direction," but he also said they don't go far enough

Andrew Huskilson, owner of H.M. Huskilson's Funeral Homes based in Yarmouth, says Nova Scotia's regulations need to be tweaked, including those outside the scope of funeral directors. (Submitted by Andrew Huskilson)

Andrew Huskilson, owner of H.M. Huskilson's Funeral Homes and Crematorium based in Yarmouth and a member of the Funeral Service Association of Nova Scotia, said there is no standard method or definition for recording chain of custody.

"At the time in 2018, Service Nova Scotia thought it was best to allow funeral homes to develop this themselves," he said.

"Nova Scotia has the second-highest rate of cremation in all of Canada and our regulations, they need to be tweaked. There's more that needs to be done."

The government also needs to review procedures outside the scope of funeral directors, Huskilson said.

"With what's transpired, the Department of Health is certainly going to have to look at what they're doing, as well, and possibly medical examiner services, as well. We have to work at this collaboratively, together, to get this right."

The province is set to review Forest Haven Funeral Home's licence on March 11, but is not commenting until that review is complete. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

After Curry's licence was revoked, the funeral association said it would offer professional development on things like chain of custody and body identification.

Huskilson said that was done earlier this week with about half of all funeral directors in the province participating.

Nova Scotia Health said it cannot comment, because the latest incident is undergoing what it called a quality review.

The health authority also would not provide a breakdown of exactly how bodies are supposed to be handled to avoid mixups.

The province is set to review Forest Haven Funeral Home's licence March 11.

Service Nova Scotia, which oversees regulations covering funeral homes, refused to offer the minister for comment.

The department said it has to wait until the review of Forest Haven's licence is done.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 36 years. He has spent half of them covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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