CBC Investigates

Family boycotts inquiry into mistaken cremation over lack of transparency

The family of Sandra Bennett — a woman who was mistakenly cremated after her body was mixed up with two others at a Nova Scotia funeral home — is boycotting an inquiry into what happened.

Oversight of Nova Scotia's funeral industry cloaked in secrecy when compared to other provinces

Sandra Bennett died on Dec. 20, 2017. Her body was mistakenly cremated after a mix-up at a funeral home in Berwick, N.S. (Bennett family)

The family of Sandra Bennett — a woman who was mistakenly cremated after her body was mixed up with two others at a Nova Scotia funeral home — is boycotting an inquiry into what happened, as they are unhappy with the process and its lack of transparency.

"This is not in any way beneficial to my client," the family's lawyer, Paul Walter, told CBC News.

In an email exchange with a Service Nova Scotia bureaucrat, Walter said he was told the inquiry by the Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, which launched this morning, is a disciplinary hearing and his clients are "not parties to this hearing, they are witnesses."

Service Nova Scotia is responsible for licensing the province's funeral homes, while the board regulates funeral directors and embalmers.

Bennett, 65, died last December after a lengthy illness. Her family arrived at Serenity Funeral Home in Berwick, N.S., before her Dec. 27 visitation to discover another deceased woman on display.

Family members said they had to argue with funeral home staff in order to convince them the body was not their loved one. That casket was removed and another brought in, this time containing a woman's body wearing Bennett's clothes, but it was not her either.

The family was ultimately informed Bennett had been cremated by mistake.

Family could testify, but wouldn't hear other side

This week, Walter said he was also told that while representatives of Serenity Funeral Home would be able to question the Bennett family, the family would not permitted to listen to testimony from funeral home staff or question them.

"It is the responsibility of the Board to determine facts of the case and to ask questions of the witnesses and licensees to the hearing," read an email sent from Service Nova Scotia to Walter.

As a result, Walter said, his clients are not attending because the process "does not permit them to participate in a meaningful manner."

Bennett's family had bought a plot and gravestone for her casket. (Yvonne Colbert/CBC)

Instead, he said, the Bennett family may pursue "other avenues" that will allow them to hold the funeral home to account "for the horrific debacle that came to light … relative to the inappropriate, unprofessional and grossly negligent mishandling of the remains of Sandra Bennett."

The boycott comes as the Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors launched its inquiry into the incident at the Annapolis Valley funeral home.

Closed-door inquiry

The in-camera meeting is taking place behind closed doors and with no requirement to ever make its findings public.

Of the six people on the board, five work directly in the funeral business and the sixth is a government bureaucrat.

That level of secrecy is in sharp contrast to some other provinces, which have opened their funeral industries and disciplinary hearings to public scrutiny and established regulators independent of those working in the business.

"It's my experience that openness and transparency and being an effective regulator results in consumer confidence and that's what, at the end of the day, it's all about," said Carey Smith, CEO and registrar of the Bereavement Authority of Ontario.

The funeral industry in Nova Scotia was thrown into the spotlight as a result of Bennett's accidental cremation. Details of the body mix-up were not made public by the government regulator. 

Bennett's funeral took place at the Berwick Funeral Chapel, operated by Serenity Funeral Home. (CBC)

Service Nova Scotia Minister Geoff MacLellan has refused to withdraw Serenity's licence. The board has not publicly indicated that it has taken any immediate action as a result of the mix-up, other than to announce an inquiry.

In addition to holding its inquiries in secret, the Nova Scotia board is not required to publish a yearly report outlining the number of complaints it receives, the nature of the complaints, the names of those being investigated or how the complaints were resolved. There is no requirement for it to ever disclose complaints or action against funeral directors or embalmers.

It took the board and Service Nova Scotia five months to announce penalties against funeral home operator Trevor Tracey, who pleaded guilty to accepting money for pre-arranged funerals without a licence.

That case was the first in recent history for which government and the board publicized the penalties for violations of provincial laws. Since the board is not required to publicly disclose its investigations or the results of them, it's not known whether that is the only action it's taken in recent years.

Publicly posted complaints in Ontario, Manitoba

Contrast that with Manitoba, which has been publishing details of complaints, names and results of investigations since 2010.

The province of Ontario also posts notices of hearings, holds them in public and then posts the results, complete with the names of the funeral homes and those who have been disciplined and why.

"Hearings are completely open to the public, so we post them right on the front page of our website," Smith said.

He describes the organization as a "consumer protection agency" that has nothing to do with promoting or protecting the funeral industry.

Service Nova Scotia Minister Geoff MacLellan has said that he will accept any recommendations to ensure mistaken cremations never happen again. (Robert Doublett/CBC)

The authority came into being in January 2016 and is financed by licensing fees. Unlike Nova Scotia, it has no funeral directors, funeral home owners or embalmers in its administration. Instead, it has advisory committees, including one representing the funeral industry.

In Nova Scotia, the board which oversees, licenses and handles complaints about the industry is made of six people — three licensed embalmers selected by the province, two selected by the Funeral Service Association of Nova Scotia and the registrar for Service Nova Scotia.

And it's not just the actions of the regulatory body and the way complaints are handled that are kept under wraps.

Itemized pricing

In Ontario, for example, there is no "all-in" pricing as there is in Nova Scotia.

"Every cost has to be itemized on the contract and has to be explained," Smith says.

"Everything from disbursements for documentation fees to transportation fees to the casket has to be described in full and in detail. Every individual fee has to be itemized so that people understand exactly what it is they're paying for and they can opt out of certain things," he said.

Ontario funeral homes must follow much more stringent rules when it comes to selling their products and dealing with families when they are at their most vulnerable.

"They have to display their price list or have a sign saying, 'Ask for price lists and we'll provide it,'" Smith said. "Anyone can go into any funeral home and ask for a copy of the price list and the funeral home has to provide it."

In Ontario, a person found to have violated the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act can be fined as much as $50,000, sentenced to two years less a day in jail, or both. A corporation can be fined a maximum of $250,000.

In Nova Scotia, the board can suspend or cancel licences for embalmers and funeral directors. Under the Embalmers and Funeral Directors Act, the maximum penalty for an offence is $500.

Violations of The Cemetery and Funeral Services Act can result in maximum penalties of $2,000 for an individual or $25,000 for a corporation.

MacLellan has said he will accept any recommendations from the board to ensure body mix-ups and mistaken cremations never happen again.

About the Author

Yvonne Colbert

Consumer Watchdog

Yvonne Colbert has been a journalist for nearly 35 years, covering everything from human interest stories to the provincial legislature. These days, she's focused on helping consumers get the most bang for their bucks and avoid being ripped off. She invites story ideas at yvonne.colbert@cbc.ca.

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