Bill would add funeral home rules on preservation

Will Spear, funeral director at Hansen-Spear Funeral Home, sets up flowers and plants in the funeral home’s chapel Thursday for a visitation later in the day. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)
Posted: Feb. 14, 2014 9:08 am Updated: Feb. 28, 2014 12:14 pm

By MAGGIE MENDERSKIHerald-Whig Staff Writer

Kyle Cookson can count on one hand the number of times his funeral home has struggled to locate a next of kin.

Cookson, co-owner of Zehender-Robinson-Stormer-Cookson Funeral Home in Quincy, has worked in the funeral home business for three decades. He said it's rarely difficult to track down a relative in tight-knit Adams County. When it takes longer than expected, he has a refrigeration unit available to keep a body from decomposing.

Other funeral directors aren't so lucky. It can take days or even weeks after someone dies before the family gives instructions on what kind of service they want, funeral directors say. State Rep. Dan Brady, a Bloomington Republican who also is a funeral home director and embalmer, wants to require bodies to be refrigerated or embalmed within 48 hours if funeral homes don't receive other instructions from the person in charge of arrangements.

"Bigger cities where someone is homeless and they pass away and nobody really knows who the person is, that's where they had that issue," Cookson said. "Most of the time (in Adams County), you'll find somebody that will tell you something."

Brady's funeral home doesn't have refrigerated units to store bodies, and 48 hours is about as long as a funeral home can hold a body without a health risk. In one case, a family from California couldn't be reached for three days. In the meantime, Brady turned the body over to the coroner's office to be refrigerated, adding to the funeral's cost.

Brady said this happens all across Illinois. Sometimes the family lives out of state and can't be reached, or family members argue over the arrangements. Meanwhile, funeral homes may hold the body without refrigerated storage, potentially allowing it to decompose and pose a public health risk.

The current law says funeral homes can embalm if they've made a "good-faith effort" to contact families, but it says nothing about a time period. Brady also said the bill would protect funeral directors from a liability standpoint. If a family couldn't be contacted, the funeral home could embalm the body without having to fear litigation if it were against the family's wishes or religious beliefs.

Jeff Spear, funeral director at Hansen-Spear Funeral Home in Quincy, said his business has had refrigeration for at least 20 years, so rushing to embalm a body has not been an issue.

"Quincy is a small town, and a lot of times people know a lot of things. A lot of times, it's just beating the bushes and finding (people)," Spear said. "With us having refrigeration, it really hasn't been an issue. The one thing you wouldn't want to do is embalm a body and find out that this person was of an orthodox faith."

Cookson said the county coroner often steps in when family cannot be contacted. He said it's not uncommon in cases like that for the coroner to authorize an embalmment or cremation.

Charles Childs, president and co-owner of A.A. Rayner and Sons in Chicago, said his funeral home has held bodies for one to two weeks while waiting for instruction from families.

"We wait the next day, the next day, and we have no contact with the family," Charles said.

His funeral home, one of the largest in the state, has refrigerated units that allow for longer storage.

Steve Knox, executive director Illinois Funeral Directors Association, said his group hasn't taken a position on the 48-hour rule because it hasn't had enough time to analyze what it would mean for the industry. But he said it's not an uncommon law among states.

Woodford County Coroner Tim Ruestman said this legislation would be good for consumers.

"It protects everybody," said Ruestman, who serves on the Illinois funeral home and embalmers advisory board.

The legislation has been sent to the House Rules Committee.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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