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Mix-up of women's bodies leads to funeral home reforms in Nova Scotia

Last Updated Sep 18, 2018 at 5:20 pm EDT

HALIFAX – Nova Scotia has introduced legislation to make the funeral home industry more accountable, but the husband of a woman whose remains were mistakenly cremated after a bizarre mix-up says the new rules don’t go far enough.

“They should have went further,” Gary Bennett said Tuesday before amended legislation was tabled in the provincial legislature. “More transparency is needed.”

Bennett’s wife, 65-year-old Sandra Bennett, was mistakenly cremated while 96-year-old Myrtle Wilson was embalmed and presented as Sandra Bennett to her family during a visitation that went horribly wrong last December at the Serenity Funeral Home in Berwick, N.S.

“It’s been very hard,” Gary Bennett told reporters outside the legislature. “It’s something that should have never happened.”

In March, the provincial regulator revoked funeral director David Farmer’s licence for his role in the botched ceremony, and the provincial government promised to tighten the rules for funeral homes.

On Tuesday, Service Nova Scotia Minister Geoff MacLellan introduced changes to the Embalmers and Funeral Directors Act and the Cemetery and Funeral Services Act.

“The serious and significant issues families experienced with certain funeral homes over the last few months were unacceptable,” the minister said in a statement. “No one should experience such devastating situations.”

The changes call for stiffer fines and stricter rules, and what the government describes as more transparent hearings when a complaint is filed against a funeral home.

However, Gary Bennett said the changes are lacking because complaint hearings won’t be held in public, and bereaved family members won’t be able to pose questions to the funeral home operators and their staff — options that are available when complaints are filed in Ontario.

It was for these key reasons that the Bennett family declined to participate in a February inquiry by the Nova Scotia Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.

Bennett said he has yet to make up his mind about taking further legal action.

The Bennett family’s lawyer, Paul Walter, also said more should be done to allow families to participate more meaningfully in hearings that should be open to the public.

“This would enhance transparency and show that the government is indeed serious about protecting the public,” he said in an email.

Still, Walter praised two new measures: the requirement for all funeral homes and crematoriums to label human remains at all times while in their custody, and the addition of two consumer representatives on the board of registration.

The board’s chairman, Adam Tipert, offered an apology to the Bennett family.

“We apologize to the Bennett family if they feel that we weren’t being transparent,” he said. “I would agree that we could have done things differently.”

However, he said the board decided public hearings were a bad idea because the privacy of bereaved families could not be protected.

As for the ability of families to pose questions to funeral home directors and staff, Tipert said that couldn’t happen because the board is a licensing body that operates under administrative law.

“We are not solicitors, we are not in a court of law,” he said. “We can’t offer examination and cross-examination because we are not authorized to operate in that manner.”

MacLellan said the government was opposed to public hearings because that could result in costly legal wrangling.

“It opens up the opportunity for countersuits and such,” he told a bill briefing. “It’s a legal implication for us.”

Tipert said the new rules in Nova Scotia mirror those in other provinces, except Ontario. He said it would be wrong to compare Nova Scotia with Ontario, where the Bereavement Authority of Ontario is more like a consumer protection branch than a licensing authority.

“In terms of the events that happened with the Bennett family … they may disagree, but we have always kept them foremost in our minds as we moved forward,” Tipert said. “The changes moving forward are going to be in everyone’s benefit.”

Other changes include increasing fines from $500 to a maximum of $25,000 for individuals and up to $300,000 for businesses. Funeral homes can also be prosecuted for offences up to three years after the incident happens or the registrar becomes aware of the incident.