Toronto family told they couldn't cremate father because of possible medical implants

Cindy Monk-Fuller says just hours after her father's death, a representative from the Toronto funeral home asked if he had ever had any kind of treatment for cancer where they used medical isotopes. She says they were initially told he couldn't be granted his final wish: to be cremated.

Pacemakers and theraseeds can make a person ineligible for cremation

The family of Al Monk wasn't sure if he had devices called theraseeds implanted to treat prostate cancer. As a result, the funeral home said he would not be eligible to be cremated, something that changed course once the family learned he didn't have the theraseeds treatment after all.

When Cindy Monk-Fuller's father died last month on Valentine's Day, the family wasn't expecting to have to scramble to make funeral arrangements — she said that had already been taken care of years earlier by her father.

"He was the type of person who never wanted to leave, particularly his wife Helen, with any kind of stress," Monk-Fuller told CBC Toronto.

"He didn't want to leave her with the problems of making decisions for him after he'd passed."

In 2012, Al Monk went into the Highland Funeral Home in suburban Scarborough to sign a prepaid funeral plan agreement.

Monk, who was in his early 80s, didn't want anything fancy, paying $2,124.40 to cover all costs associated with a basic cremation.

Cindy Monk-Fuller says she was told her father Al may not be eligible for cremation, despite the fact he had prepaid for the procedure years before he died on Feb. 14. (Guillaume Cottin/CBC News)

Monk's daughter said he stressed to her the importance of a cremation over burial.

"'When I go, do not put me in the ground,'" Monk-Fuller recalled him saying. '"I don't want to be buried.' He was very clear on that."

Just hours after his death, Monk-Fuller was at the funeral home with her stepmother to finalize the plans her father had put in place.

At one point, Monk-Fuller said, a representative from the funeral home asked if her father had ever had any kind of treatment for cancer involving medical isotopes.

She said her stepmother thought he may have, because he was treated for prostate cancer in 2007. At that point, the conversation changed and it appeared a cremation was no longer possible.

"Every crematorium in Toronto was refusing to cremate my father." Monk-Fuller said.

They were refusing because they were told Monk-Fuller may have had brachytherapy for his prostate cancer. It involves implanting dozens of tiny devices called theraseeds in the body.

Al Monk prepaid for funeral services at the Highland Funeral Home in 2012. (Guillaume Cottin/CBC News)

Theraseeds allow for a higher doses of radiation to be used on the affected area, while limiting damage to other areas.

According to Michelle Crognale, an inspector with the Bereavement Authority of Ontario, the crematoriums were just following the guidelines in the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act of Ontario. 

"Any body that contains an implant, such as a pacemaker or theraseeds … would prevent that body from being cremated," Crognale said.

The implants put cremation operators at risk of radiation exposure and can also damage equipment used in the cremation process, according to Crognale.

If Monk-Fuller was not eligible, his family would be left with just one option: burial. It would also cost thousands more than he paid for his cremation.

His daughter says her family was frustrated and wondering why they had never heard about this before.

"I think any oncologist who has offered that treatment to a patient should know the law," Monk-Fuller said.

But his doctors weren't the only ones who failed to make this clear. The funeral home where he made his arrangements didn't mention it either, and it's not mentioned anywhere in the contract he signed.

"Our role is to really provide the families with guidance in creating funeral and memorializations that are meaningful to them in their love ones," said Dustin Wright, senior director of marketing and communications for Arbour Memorial, the parent company of Highland Funeral Home.

Cindy Monk-Fuller looks at pictures of her father, who died on Valentine's Day. (Guillaume Cottin/CBC News)

"Asking that kind of question or having that within our agreement is not part of our scope," he said.

Monk-Fuller said her family reached out to her father's doctor to confirm whether he had the brachytherapy to treat his prostate cancer. Fortunately, the doctor was able to pull up all his records.

"It turns out my father just had radiation, regular radiation," Monk-Fuller said.

It was a huge relief for the family, who now only needed to provide a letter from the doctor confirm the type of treatment he had received.

In the end, they were able to follow through with his wishes and have him cremated, but Monk-Fuller wonders why it's not mandatory for funeral directors to provide this information.

"If you're sitting down with a client and you're taking their money, I think it's incumbent upon you to have the correct information," she said.

Wright said his company will take that under advisement.

About the Author

Greg Ross is a reporter in the CBC Toronto newsroom working in TV, radio and online.

With files from Katherine Brulotte


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