Board looks into allegations of bodies switched at N.S. funeral home
Keith Doucette and Alison Auld, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, February 13, 2018 8:25PM AST
Last Updated Wednesday, February 14, 2018 7:32AM AST
HALIFAX -- The family of a woman who was mistakenly cremated after a bizarre mix-up at a Nova Scotia funeral home declined to participate in an inquiry Tuesday, saying the process lacks transparency and is geared to help the industry.
The Nova Scotia Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors held a closed-door hearing in Halifax to determine what happened at the Serenity Funeral Home in Berwick in December.
Relatives of Sandra Bennett say they arrived at the home on Dec. 27 for a visitation but found the body of another woman dressed in Bennett's clothing in the casket. They say a second body was presented to them, but again it was not their 65-year-old relative and they were told Bennett was mistakenly cremated.
Adam Tipert of the funeral directors board said its findings could lead to changes affecting other funeral homes in the province. Serenity Funeral Home has not responded to requests for comment.
Paul Walter, lawyer for the Bennett family, said Tuesday that his clients had declined to participate, adding that it was "quite clear this board is essentially run by people in the funeral industry."
"We decided to back out of it," said Walter. "It's just not a process geared, from my perspective, to benefit my clients."
Walter said under the hearing process, his clients could be questioned but would not be given the opportunity to ask their own questions of representatives of the Serenity Funeral Home.
Walter said Sandra Bennett's husband, Gary, is "not happy in the least."
"He didn't want to participate in something that was in essence not giving him or his relatives the degree of respect and dignity that they should be receiving in this process."
Walter provided The Canadian Press with a series of emails to illustrate his concerns with the hearing. The exchanges are with an official that Walter asked be identified simply as a "board member."
In the first email, Feb. 8, Walter was told of the proposed schedule for the hearing.
"The board thought it would be best to have the Bennett family go first so they won't have to wait around and can leave after they have provided their statements," said the board member. "This will also allow them to hear opening remarks."
In his reply, Walter said he was under the impression the family would be able to pose questions of the funeral home described in the schedule as "licensees."
"I do note that each 'licensee' is given an opportunity to ask questions of Sandra Bennett's relatives, so is it not fair and reasonable for the same opportunity to be afforded Sandra Bennett's relatives?"
In a Feb. 9 email, Walter was told his clients were not parties, but witnesses to what is a disciplinary hearing to determine if the funeral home's licence would be suspended or revoked.
The email quotes board bylaws that say the inquiry "shall not be open to the public" and that "witnesses ... may be excluded" except while their evidence is being presented.
"It is the decision of the board that all witnesses will be excluded from the hearing except while their evidence is being presented," the email states.
In a Feb. 9 reply, Walter said the process "does not permit them to participate in a meaningful manner," so his clients would not be participating. He said they would "pursue other avenues" aimed at holding the funeral home accountable.
Walter wouldn't explicitly say Tuesday whether the family is suing the home, and wondered whether the hearing's findings would ultimately be made public.
"They don't have to make it public," Walter said. "I think they'd be crazy not to ... this is a matter the public should have a keen interest in."
Later Tuesday, Tipert said the board had wrapped its hearing and make a decision on the licence with recommendations that would be released publicly within 30 days.
"We are waiting for some written submissions from legal counsel and then we'll do our deliberations and come up with our response," said Tipert.
He called the family's decision not to participate in the hearing "disappointing," but said the board respects their choice.
As for complaints about transparency, Tipert said the inquiry is set up for the board to determine decisions on particular licensees.
"It wasn't a courtroom setting. The benefit of this hearing was for the board of registration and we extended the courtesy of involving the families ... so they could participate at some level."
Tipert did say the board has the authority to reconsider its processes in consultation with Service Nova Scotia.
"We have had some discussions on the public involvement, information being perhaps more readily available. But it's at preliminary stages and it's something more that perhaps we can look at moving into the future."