Colorado governor signs bills regulating funeral homes after discovery of 190 rotting bodies

May 25, 2024, 11:42 AM

Colorado State Capitol Building, partially obscured by trees, on East Colfax Avenue in Denver, Colo...

Colorado State Capitol Building, partially obscured by trees, on East Colfax Avenue in Denver, Colorado, circa 1965. The neoclassical building, built from Colorado white granite, was designed by Elijah E Myers. (Photo by Vincent Brown, Manchester/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

(Photo by Vincent Brown, Manchester/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

DENVER (AP) — Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed two bills into law Friday that overhaul state oversight of the funeral home industry after a series of gruesome discoveries, including 190 discomposing bodies in a facility, families being sent fake ashes and the unauthorized sale of body parts.

The cases put Colorado’s lax funeral home regulations — some of the weakest in the nation — in the spotlight and rocked hundreds of already grieving families.

Some families had ceremonially spread ashes that turned out to be fake. Others said they had nightmares about what their loved ones might have looked like in a decayed state.

“When grieving the loss of a loved one, the last thing a family should worry about is the trustworthiness and professionalism of those entrusted to care for the person who has passed,” Polis said in a statement.

At least 189 bodies found decaying at a Colorado funeral home, up from 115, officials say

The new laws bring Colorado in line with most other states.

One requires regulators to routinely inspect funeral homes and give them more enforcement power. Another implements licensing for funeral directors and other workers in the industry. They would need to pass background checks and a national exam while possessing degrees and work experience.

Previously, funeral home directors in Colorado didn’t have to graduate from high school, let alone have a degree.

The funeral home industry was generally on board with the changes though some expressed concern that strict requirements for funeral home directors were unnecessary and would make it difficult to find hirable applicants.

The bill signings follow a rocky year for Colorado funeral homes.

In early October, neighbors noticed a putrid smell coming from a building in the town of Penrose about two hours south of Denver. Authorities soon found 190 decaying bodies there including adults, infants and fetuses.

Some were stacked atop each other. Decomposition fluid covered the floors while flies and maggots swarmed.

Almost two dozen bodies dated to 2019 and some 60 more were from 2020. As the bodies were identified, families who had received ashes learned the cremains weren’t their loved ones.

The mother of a man whose body was found in the Penrose facility said she would keep after Colorado lawmakers to make sure the new laws are implemented stringently.

“I’m super excited. I think this is a great first step,” said Crystina Page, mother of David Jaxon Page, 20, who was killed by police during a mental health crisis in 2019.

The new laws should lead to regulations requiring crematoriums to independently verify the identity of remains, then certify to the state that those remains were cremated, Page said.

In most states, funeral homes are routinely inspected but no such rules were on the books in Colorado. The owners of the funeral home were arrested in November and collectively face hundreds of charges of abusing corpses and other counts.

Just months later, in February, a woman’s body was found in the back of hearse where a suburban Denver funeral home had left it for over a year. At least 30 sets of cremated remains were found stashed throughout the funeral director’s home.

Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming, contributed to this report.

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Colorado governor signs bills regulating funeral homes after discovery of 190 rotting bodies