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Editorial: State must bolster staffing for funeral home inspections



Last modified: Monday, June 22, 2015
Until practice catches up with promises, customers of funeral home services in Massachusetts need to guard themselves and their families against fraudulent conduct that can turn a difficult time into a horrendous one.

While steps have been taken in the past year to more closely monitor financial transactions between consumers and the state’s 535 funeral homes — a scrutiny that arose after last year’s debacle involving the Ryder Funeral Home in South Hadley — oversight by the state Division of Professional Licensure remains spotty.

That’s not likely to change in any meaningful way unless more effort, not less, is put into monitoring the funeral home business in Massachusetts.

And yet when they convened a public meeting last week, members of the Board of Registration in Embalming and Funeral Directing weren’t there to gather advice on how to field more effective consumer protections on their on accord. The organization was complying with a request from Gov. Charlie Baker that it, along with all state agencies, reduce what are perceived to be unnecessary regulatory burdens. While that vision of smaller government fits the new Republican governor’s worldview, it isn’t what’s needed on this front: closer attention to an expensive and essential service that everyone eventually requires, and should be able to count on.

A Gazette special report published Saturday and Monday revealed that the Division of Professional Licensure, which oversees 28 boards of registration covering 50 trades and professions, has not been inside some state funeral homes for a decade.

Just one inspector tries to keep up with the entire industry, for the most part, and recently took on the burden of also checking on those who hold veterinary licenses. Record-keeping within the division has been weak, a failure that, in the wake of the ghastly discoveries inside Ryder, cost two employees their jobs last year. The South Hadley funeral home was ordered closed May 30, 2014, after concerned family members — not a state inspector — found that bodies were being improperly cared for. It was later determined that as many as 60 customers had been cheated out of about $400,000 paid to the home in advance for funeral services.

The Division of Professional Licensure’s new director, Charles Borstel, is promising an “aggressive” timetable of inspections that will result in getting inside all of the state’s funeral homes for proper inspections within 18 months. He plans to achieve that by deploying personnel more wisely, managing inspectors’ time better and using handheld devices to speed the inspection process.

While those steps may add efficiency and improve oversight, it is folly to think that the risk of malfeasance within the industry can be addressed without getting more inspectors out on their rounds and more diligent file management in Boston. As part of his special report, Gazette reporter Dan Crowley traveled with Alan Van Tassel, a veteran inspector supervisor with the DPL, to funeral homes. When asked whether his agency has enough resources, Van Tassel suggested it could, and should, be doing more. “When they go bad, they seem to go bad in an epic sort of way,” he said of funeral homes.

State Rep. John Scibak of South Hadley says he raised questions about whether enough money was being directed to inspections, while serving as chairman of the Joint Committees on Public Service and Consumer Protection & Professional Licensure.

No one requested it, he said, but someone should have been asking for more help, for the need to strengthen the division’s field work was clear. The Gazette’s review of some 2,000 inspection reports statewide found that between 2005 and 2014, attempts to perform unannounced funeral home inspections (many of which were not carried out, due to businesses being closed due to funerals or family meetings) fell to a paltry 35 in 2010, from a previous yearly average of about 250. It rose the next year to 93 attempted inspections, then to 164 in 2012, before falling again to 140 in 2013. A concerted effort to restore the legitimacy of these inspections, after the Ryder problem was discovered, lifted the number of attempted inspections last year to 286.

In the early 2000s, when most funeral home inspections were being handled by a former DPL employee, John Bresnahan, that work turned up as many as 20 violations a year, a figure that fell to a maximum of three in the years 2009 to 2013, after Bresnahan moved to another job and the rigor he was credited with bringing to his assignment disappeared.

In the Ryder case, an inspection just months before the business imploded failed to verify the status and integrity of the home’s pre-need contracts with customers. When asked to explain why an inspection report was blank on that subject, the DPL could not provide an answer. It missed a warning flag of mounting troubles.

This is not the time for less regulation of the funeral industry. Borstel, the DPL’s chief, must be held to the commitment he made in an interview with the Gazette to inspect all state funeral homes within 18 months. For that to be achieved, the agency must inspect an average of 30 homes a month, or about one and a half every work day.

Last year’s record of 286 attempted inspections would have produced about 214 actual inspections, since one in four never takes place. That breaks down to an average of 17.8 a month, or fewer than one a day — falling short of Bostel’s goal. Clearly, he needs more inspectors to do the job.

State law does not specify how often funeral homes must be inspected and that contributes to this problem. The Board of Registration in Embalming and Funeral Directing should insist on regular inspections.

At the same time, the Legislature should look into other steps to protect consumers. A key one, advanced by Worcester funeral director, is to bar funeral home operators from accepting money paid directly to them for future services.

Though the state has stepped up its review of financial documents during unannounced inspections, only two files are chosen at random to be checked, inspectors are not accountants and anyone at a funeral home who wishes to conceal fraud can withhold the files.

Consumers must enter into these contracts carefully and demand documentation showing that their advance payments have been invested in trust accounts or insurance policies. They may sorely wish to put the matter of a loved one’s funeral arrangements, or their own, in someone else’s hands. In most cases, that trust is upheld. When it isn’t, the costs, and heartache, can be immense.