BERWICK – Gary Bennett hopes no one else has to go through what he went through last December when his deceased wife was accidentally cremated.
Bennett was present at the fall session of the Nova Scotia Legislature Sept. 14 when Kings North house member John Lohr – also running for the Progressive Conservative leadership – raised a question to Service Nova Scotia Minister Geoff MacLellan on how the party would address the mistake, and prevent future funeral home errors.
MacLellan confirmed legislation would be presented the following week, and on Sept. 18, outlined amendments to the Embalmers and Funeral Directors Act and the Cemetery and Funeral Services Act proposing increased fines and more complaint process transparency among its changes.
“I was shocked – I didn’t think something like that would happen so quick. But I’m happy something’s being done,” says Bennett.
The ordeal began when Bennett was presented with two bodies before the funeral of his wife, Sandra. Neither of them was his wife, and he later learned she had been mistakenly cremated by the Berwick Funeral Chapel.
Bennett approached Lohr at his constituency office this summer in Kentville with several concerns – chief among them that Bennett and his lawyers were not allowed to cross-examine the funeral home, nor hear its testimony, as part of the complaint they launched. Bennett says this is what led to his decision to halt proceedings.
“You travel all the way to Halifax, take your lawyer, go into a private meeting, they ask you a few questions, and you’re escorted out. There’s no sense going to a meeting like that – it’s one-sided,” says Bennett.
Lohr says the issue was addressed during the house’s spring session, but no legislation was introduced. He says this is why he raised the question Sept. 14, and was not aware Liberals would introduce the legislation just four days later.
On Sept. 14, Lohr said he hoped the bill included a standardized code of operations for funeral homes, along with the appeal process amended to allow greater involvement of the complainant.
“There’s a sense that there needs to be a [fairer] opportunity where both sides get to hear the other side. There needs to be a higher level of participation of the complainant,” says Lohr.
The bill appears to address these concerns – seeking an increase in infraction fines from $500 to up to $25,000 for individuals, and $300,000 for businesses – and includes making hearing schedules, decisions, convictions, fines and penalties for licensees public.
It also includes increasing the number of non-industry members on the Nova Scotia Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors by two.
“We want to make sure we get this [bill] right,” says MacLellan.
“It was tragic, it was wrong, and it was unacceptable. To see what the family went through, losing a loved one, which is a very difficult period – to have this happen... is unacceptable.”
Bennett says the ordeal continues to feel “mind-boggling” but that things are beginning to settle for his family. He says he is still disappointed he was not able to settle the matter through the appeal process himself, and hopes other families are allowed a larger role than he was.
“I just hope when someone’s loved one passes away, they pay attention to the paperwork that’s involved.”
The bill also proposes funeral homes and crematoriums have human remains labelled at all times while in their custody.
Neither the Berwick Funeral Chapel nor the Nova Scotia Board of Registration of Embalmers and Funeral Directors responded to request for comment within deadlines for this story.