A West Vancouver family is suing a local funeral home, its U.S.-based parent company and St. Paul’s Hospital for psychological suffering after their mother’s body was picked up from the morgue without their permission and went ‘missing’ for several days.
Holly Haliburton, a feisty West Vancouver woman, died peacefully at St. Paul’s two years ago at 95.
But what happened next was anything but peaceful, said Jim Haliburton, Holly’s son, who launched the lawsuit with his sister Jacqueline Haliburton this week.
Instead, the family alleges, a North Vancouver funeral home “snatched” their mother’s body without any authorization, then tried to it cover up.
“I can’t even be sure to this date the ashes I have today are my mother’s,” said Haliburton.
Haliburton said what happened to him highlights a need for greater regulation of the funeral industry.
In his own family’s case, his mother was a member of the Memorial Society of B.C., a non-profit organization that provides discounted funeral services.
But when Haliburton called the phone number on the card a few days after his mother’s death, he was put through to First Memorial Funeral Services of North Vancouver — a funeral home that no longer contracted with the non-profit group.
When he asked for the price of a cremation — as his mother had requested — he was told he would have to visit in person to get that.
A couple of days later, Haliburton and his sister went to the funeral home, where Haliburton said they were quickly put off by attempts to “upsell” them. When he was finally given the price of a cremation, Haliburton said he thought it was “quite outlandish.”
They left without signing any documents or making any arrangements. Haliburton phoned around and managed to find an alternate service — A Basic Cremation in Coquitlam — that offered the service he was looking for — at about one-third of the cost.
But when the family asked the company to pick up their mother’s body from the morgue, things got really strange, said Haliburton. “They called back and said, ‘Your mother’s body isn’t there.’”
After repeated attempts to speak with the manager at First Memorial, Haliburton said he was eventually told there had been “an innocent mistake.”
Haliburton, however, doesn’t see it that way. “Somehow they got her body without any paperwork,” he said. “They had her body somewhere. To this day, we don’t know where it was.”
The company hired by the Haliburtons to do the cremation eventually retrieved his mother’s body from a facility in Burnaby and was able to carry out the family’s wishes.
After months of requests, according to the lawsuit, the siblings also got St. Paul’s Hospital to admit it had released the body to First Memorial before the family had even gone there to discuss their options.
Haliburton later filed complaints with Consumer Protection B.C. The branch investigated and issued a warning letter to the funeral company, said Melaina Haas, spokeswoman for the branch.
First Memorial referred all calls about the Haliburtons’ lawsuit to the head office of its parent company, Service Corporation International, in Texas. Jessica McDunn, the spokeswoman for SCI, said in an email it would be inappropriate to share any details of the case.
Providence Health Care, which oversees St. Paul’s Hospital, also refused to comment.
Haliburton said most people don’t know they have consumer rights when dealing with funeral homes. For instance, under the law in B.C., funeral homes must give prices over the phone when requested.
They must also have written authorization to provide funeral services, although permission to collect a body can be given over the phone.
(For more information on consumer rights regarding funerals in B.C. click on this link).
Haliburton said adding to the problem is most funeral businesses — including all funeral homes on the North Shore — are owned by one parent company, which means there is little competition.
Haliburton said that still doesn’t excuse what happened to his family. “We’ve been taught to respect the dead and dying and to honour them when they’re gone,” he said. “Checks and balances should be built into the system. There should be no opportunity for an innocent mistake.”
Following their experience, Haliburton and his sister started a blog funeralwatchdog.com that details the experiences of families who have run into problems with the funeral industry and strives to educate consumers about their rights.