With a federal trial looming for two Western Slope women accused of selling body parts around the world families without’ consent, Colorado lawmakers are looking to bring state inspection of funeral homes up to speed to prevent such alleged atrocities from happening again.
HB22-1073 would allow the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies to inspect funeral homes and cremators if the agency receives a complaint about the business. Currently, the department has no authority to inspect these businesses without the consent of an owner.
The bill has been shaped by two horrifying stories of alleged funeral home malpractice in Colorado, prompting lawmakers in their jurisdictions to take action.
At the Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors in Montrose, owners Megan Hess and her mother Shirley Koch allegedly deceived hundreds of families by giving them fake ashes or cremated remains that belonged to other people while discretely selling bodies snd body parts without telling loved ones.
A federal grand jury in 2020 indicated the pair on a host of felony charges, with the trial set for April. Both pleaded not guilty to all charges.
And in Leadville, former Lake County Coroner Shannon Kent – who also owned multiple high country funeral homes – was arrested last year after investigators found an unrefrigerated body, bags of unlabeled cremains and an abandoned stillborn infant at his funeral homes in Leadville and Gypsum.
Kent was convicted of official misconduct in September and is awaiting trial in Summit County on multiple felony counts relating to abusing a corpse. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.
“The details of the Shannon Kent funeral home incidents are some of the most atrocious, heinous things I’ve seen as a human being and lawmaker,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat, and one of the co-sponsors of the new bill. “I knew I wanted to do something to prevent that from happening again.”
Roberts and Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican, were moved when state regulators told them they had more power to inspect beauty salons than funeral homes.
“DORA can already do this with hairdressers, with restaurants, to make sure they’re not violating public safety laws,” Soper said. “We want the ability to do this with funeral homes.”
Under the current law, even if state inspectors are granted permission to inspect the premises of a particular funeral home, it could be weeks before they get scheduled. A bad actor would then have plenty of time to remove or destroy records, Soper said. The bill would allow regulators to show up unannounced.
Colorado has long been home to some of the country’s most lax regulations on the mortuary and funeral home industry, something lawmakers have attempted to address in recent years.
Soper ran a bill in 2020 to make abusing a corpse a felony offense, while lawmakers in 2018 made it illegal for individuals to operate both a funeral home and body broker business.
Still, there is no licensing requirement for funeral directors in Colorado – meaning virtually anyone off the street can stand up a funeral home if they so choose.
“Does this bring us up to speed? No, it doesn’t,” Soper said. “But it’s a giant step forward in the right direction.”