At least 11 formal complaints were filed with the province against funeral homes in Nova Scotia over the last five years, ranging from missing pre-arranged funeral money to concerns about an unlicensed operator, a CBC News investigation has found.

The complaints, some of which came from industry professionals themselves, have never before been made public. Unlike in some other provinces, there is no requirement in Nova Scotia to publish regulatory actions against funeral homes or those employed in the business.

Sandra Bennett

Sandra Bennett, 65, died on Dec. 20, 2017. She was mistakenly cremated after a mixup at a funeral home in Berwick, N.S. (Bennett family)

CBC News requested through freedom-of-information legislation details of complaints made to Service Nova Scotia after learning of a body mixup at Serenity Funeral Home in Berwick that ended in a woman being mistakenly cremated.

The department, which licenses funeral homes in the province, provided 77 pages of documents, many heavily redacted, detailing all complaints it had received about licensed funeral homes between 2013 and 2017.

Because of the redactions, it's hard to know exactly how many complaints were filed, but there were at least 11.

Documents show that in almost every instance, the minister of Service Nova Scotia referred the complaint to the Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, which licenses and oversees funeral professionals.

However, it's unclear whether the board ever took action on any.

NS Civil Service Wages 20171207

Mark Furey was minister of Service Nova Scotia from 2013 until June 2017. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The documents include a Dec.14, 2013, letter to Mark Furey, then the minister of Service Nova Scotia, from someone who identifies himself as "a completely frustrated funeral service professional."

The man felt existing legislation governing the industry was "lacking in policing and that the public interest is not being protected." The partially redacted letter complains about a particular funeral home.

Furey's response said the department has been working to address concerns in the marketplace and help the Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors develop a code of conduct.

"It is unfortunate that, in the past, some operators have not worked to protect the public interest as they should have," he wrote.

Complaints about high costs, unlicensed home

The documents also contain complaints about missing money for pre-arranged funerals. In January 2013, in response to one complaint letter, a department staffer wrote that it had "called the bond" of one funeral home "because of a couple of instances where funds have not been found in trust."

CBC News was unable to find any public reporting of this case by either Service Nova Scotia or the Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.

However, a Service Nova Scotia spokesperson told CBC News in an email the public was notified through advertisements placed in local papers in the area.

All funeral homes that accept money for pre-arrangements are required to deposit it into a trust fund in the person's name. The seller must provide the customer with written proof from the bank that their payment has been deposited within 21 days.

The government also requires funeral homes that accept pre-arranged funds put up a bond and maintain monthly trust ledgers reconciled monthly to bank records.

Funeral industry - redacted documents

Many of the 77 pages released by Service Nova Scotia are heavily redacted. (Yvonne Colbert/CBC)

In an email to one complainant, Furey said his department conducts annual reviews, "with emphasis on regulatory compliance regarding trust funds and purchase agreements for pre-arranged funeral plans."

A November 2015 letter to the minister from an unidentified organization urges his department to take action against a particular funeral business, whose actions it describes as "misleading and deceptive."

"Board members believe it is your obligation, to not only protect the public, but also to protect the rest of our profession from those who do not adhere or follow the regulations."

There were several other letters from someone in the funeral profession urging the minister to take action against an unlicensed home that was still conducting business.

The letter said the funeral home operation was "against the law, it creates unfair advantages to licenced funeral homes" and leaves the public vulnerable to unregulated business during a time in their lives when they depend on licensed professionals.

Ashes withheld

Documents reveal another complaint involved a funeral home not discussing costs with families, telling them "not to worry." The complainant said bills were sent even though there was no signed contract.

An October 2016 complaint involved a family of limited means. The family made it clear they could not afford to pay any more for the services than income assistance would cover, and that one family member was not to be involved in arrangements.

The complaint said despite that, the funeral home had the family member sign documents; blank contracts were signed and the family subsequently received a bill for almost $10,000, even though they had not purchased an urn or casket.

The funeral home refused to release their loved one's ashes and the family had to make repeated requests for an itemized bill.

The ashes were eventually released and the family, through Dalhousie Legal Aid, requested the balance of their bill be waived and an apology from the funeral home. It is unclear whether that ever happened.

There was a second, similar complaint requesting an itemized bill.

In each case, the department redacted the names of the funeral homes and any staff involved from the documents it released to CBC News.

The only board investigation that has been published in recent years involves two funerals homes — one in Glace Bay and the other in Bedford — operated by T.J. Tracey Cremation and Burial Specialists.

The funeral home had its licence suspended for one week by Service Nova Scotia. Owner Trevor Tracey had his funeral director's licence suspended for 90 days by the Nova Scotia Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors for selling pre-arranged funerals without a licence.

Both the government and the board waited for five months after Tracey pleaded guilty to the offence to take action against him.

CBC News asked the board for a list of complaints it has received in each of the past five years. Citing his workload, board chair Adam Tipert said he would respond accordingly and when time permits.