In more than 40 years as a funeral director, E. Peter Vasey estimates he has prepared 5,000 bodies for burial or cremation. His work the past several weeks, however, has been limited to remodeling and cleaning.
That’s because the Minnesota Department of Public Health, in an extremely rare move, last month ordered Vasey to stop his mortuary work at Maple Oaks-Phalen Park Funeral Home in Maplewood because of unsanitary conditions and a fear that they were getting worse — in one inspection, health inspectors said they found several decomposing bodies in the embalming room.
The May 15 order stipulates that Vasey cannot transport bodies to the funeral home, prepare them for a funeral or conduct funerals.
It’s unclear whether the state’s action is unprecedented. But it does appear to be uncommon, according to the health department, where staffers don’t recall it happening in recent years.
Darlyne Erickson, executive director of the Minnesota Funeral Directors Association, said she knows of no funeral home being forced to stop work because of how it stores or prepares bodies.
“The majority of funeral homes have what is required by the Department of Health,” she said. “But there may be some who don’t meet the requirements.”
The Health Department website only shows disciplinary actions against mortuaries dating to July 2014. None of the 17 cases listed cite unsanitary conditions in the prep room or call into question the condition of bodies being prepared for funeral.
In recent interviews, a clearly frustrated Vasey and his attorney said Maple Oaks should never have been cited, and that the state overreacted. They said inspectors didn’t understand that some of the bodies Vasey was preparing for Hmong funerals — which can take more time to hold and complete than traditional Western funerals, leading to a backlog of bodies — were dehydrated, and not decomposing.
“All we were trying to do is honor their traditions,” Vasey said about bodies he was preparing for another funeral home. He added that six funerals for which he was preparing bodies had been put on hold because of the state’s action.
The future of Maple Oaks is unclear. Vasey has appealed the order, and is entitled to an independent administrative hearing, said Scott Smith, a Department of Health spokesman. Once that is held, an administrative hearing judge forwards a recommendation to the state health commissioner, who issues an order. If Vasey found that to be unfavorable, he could appeal to the state Court of Appeals.
As of last week, it appeared that no administrative hearing date had been set. Meanwhile, department officials are saying little.
“Maple Oaks is still an open case, we cannot discuss it at this time,” Smith said in an e-mail. “We have to wait until all appeals are completed and all issues are resolved.”
The funeral home’s problems were documented by Administrative Law Judge Stephen Swanson in a June 1 recommendation to the state health commissioner.
Swanson wrote that inspectors found “extremely unclean and unsanitary conditions in the receiving and embalming rooms, and the presence of several dead human bodies in varying states of decomposition.”
The document indicates that Maple Oaks’ troubles began after an investigator issued an Administrative Penalty Order (APO) to the home March 19 citing the alleged conditions and “missing certificates of removal and preparation, and embalming records.”
The funeral home was required to take corrective action and pay a “forgivable” penalty of $5,000 and a non-forgivable penalty of $15,000, according to inspectors’ affidavits and Swanson’s recommendation. But it did not correct the problems or pay the penalties, according to the affidavits. Two follow-up inspections found that “conditions in the preparation and embalming rooms had worsened,” Swanson wrote.
On May 15, the Health Department issued a cease-and-desist order, which Swanson has recommended be sustained. “Such conditions,” he wrote “ … present a direct and present threat to the well-being of the members of the public who have entrusted the final disposition of the bodies of their deceased loved ones to the funeral establishment.”
But Michael D. Sharkey, Maple Oaks’ attorney and a licensed funeral director himself who specializes in mortuary cases, accused the Health Department of “hyperbole” and overreaction. He said the bodies inspectors found were not decomposing, but were merely dehydrated “in extremities.”
“Even with appropriate embalming you will have some,” he said. “But they jumped to a conclusion and we completely and totally disagree with that.”
At the time of the inspections, Maple Oaks was doing prep work for a funeral home that performs Hmong funerals. Those funerals can take several days to complete, Sharkey said, meaning that other bodies awaiting a funeral would be held longer than usual. In that time, Sharkey said, bodies can show signs of dehydration, an issue that would be addressed before the funeral.
“How a body looks in a prep room is not how a body looks when it is laid out for public view,” he said.
Preparing for sale
Chu Wu, who runs the Koob Moo Funeral Chapel in St. Paul, said that in the past, traditional Hmong funerals could take several days. Today, however, most take only a day or two, he said.
Still, other factors could lead to bodies being kept longer.
Wu said Hmong funeral homes hold only one funeral in a building at a time — and only one body on the premises. Some publications detailing Hmong funeral practices attribute that to families not wanting “multiple spirits of the dead” in a building. Wu said it’s “because of respect for that person and the family and to make sure people go to the funeral of the right person.”
In either case, however, it can lead to bodies being held for long periods of time at another facility before the funeral.
Vasey and his attorney, meanwhile, insist that Maple Oaks has done what the state required to reopen and resume business. That said, it’s not clear what will happen next.
One morning last week, Vasey was at the funeral home cleaning up and remodeling in preparation for a sale of the funeral home. A large dumpster was out back, a large bag bulging with papers was on the embalming room floor. Surfaces throughout the body prep area were clean or freshly painted.
“The situation has been remedied,” Vasey said. “I don’t understand why they’re doing this. They’re bankrupting us is what they’re doing.”