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Brookline funeral home investigated for mixup, state asserts

Similar mistake in 1997 alleged

By Stewart Bishop
Globe Correspondent / December 10, 2010

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A Brookline funeral home under investigation for mixing up two bodies this summer, burying one in the wrong grave and then allegedly covering up the error, has been put under stringent new reporting requirements after authorities charged that the home made a similar mistake more than a decade ago, state officials said yesterday.

Stanetsky Memorial Chapels has been charged by the Massachusetts Board of Registration of Funeral Directors and Embalmers with mixing up two bodies in August 1997 and failing to follow proper procedures in rectifying the error, said George Weber, the director of the state Division of Professional Licensure.

In response to the new charges, the board has taken the unusual step of requiring, pending the outcome of a trial before an administrative law judge, that two senior funeral directors sign affidavits and swear under oath that they have carefully checked and verified the identity of every deceased person the funeral home handles and submit the relevant documents to the board within 24 hours.

Weber said the action was necessary to protect the public.

“We’re trying to impress upon this funeral home the seriousness of the situation, now that we’ve found out about this prior incident,’’ he said in a phone interview last night. “Since we were presented with two incidents of people being placed in the wrong casket and the wrong grave and not being in compliance with professional regulations, the board felt initial actions had to be taken.’’

Weber said that he is not aware of any other funeral home in Massachusetts that is under such strict regulations.

Lisa Marshall — a spokeswoman for Service Corporation International, the Houston-based company that owns Stanetsky Memorial Chapels — said last night that she would not comment on specifics of the cases as a matter of policy, in order to protect clients’ privacy.

“There is an ongoing investigation that we are continuing to cooperate with,’’ Marshall said. “I can say that we have really rigorous training programs that all our employees go through, and we work very hard to ensure that mistakes don’t happen. But on the occasion we make a mistake, as all people do, our policy is to disclose to families what happened and work to repair it.’’

In the most recent incident, according to court records, Stanetsky received the bodies of two women, identified only as Decedent 1 and Decedent 2, on or around Aug. 23. Decedent 1 was to be buried next to her late husband at the Chevra Kadusha Cemetery in Woburn, but the body of Decedent 2 was placed in her casket instead. The burial for Decedent 1 took place in Woburn as planned, with the wrong body inside the coffin.

A day later, Stanetsky staff discovered their mistake and had the grave dug up and switched the bodies without notifying the woman’s family until after the fact. Decedent 2 was buried at Kopaigarod Cemetery in Boston a few days later. Her family did not know of the mistake until they were contacted by investigators. Four Stanetsky employees are also facing charges in connection with this matter.

In the 1997 incident, two individuals, identified in court documents only as Decedent A and Decedent B were both received by Stanetsky in August of that year. Funeral home staff placed Decedent B’s body inside Decedent A’s coffin. A closed-casket funeral service was held and, following the ceremony, Decedent B was buried in Decedent A’s grave.

A day later, the staff realized the error and dug up the grave and returned the body of Decedent B to the funeral home. The family was notified of the mistake, and a second service was held for Decedent A. Decedent B’s burial took place as planned, but Stanetsky failed to disclose to the family what had happened until days later, said Jason Lefferts, director of communications for the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.

Lefferts said yesterday that no identifying characteristics were being released about the bodies in the 1997 incident, out of respect for the families.

In both incidents, Webber said that Stanetsky is charged with exhibiting gross negligence in failing to bury the right person in the right grave, failure to get a proper disinterment permit for the removal of the deceased, failure to use a hermetically sealed container to transport the unembalmed bodies and failure to specifically disclose what had happened to certain family members of the deceased.

Weber said that pending the outcome of the trial, the funeral home and staff members could face fines, reprimands, and suspension or revocation of professional licences and other commercial restrictions.

Stewart Bishop can be reached at sbishop@globe.com.