Funeral Directors Blaming Doctors for Death Certificates Delays

March 12, 2012
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I have talked with a number of funeral directors in Ohio who have talked about this same problem with doctors. Is this a problem across the country?


Article from Chicago Sun-Times

Robert Shostak, a resident at All Faith Pavilion Nursing Home at 35th & Giles, died on Jan. 22.

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His remains went to Carter Funeral Chapels at 75th and Clyde, and the funeral home handled all the final arrangements.

But there’s still some unfinished business.

For the past 47 days, funeral home employees have been trying to get the death certificate signed by a doctor at Jackson Park Hospital where Shostak died.

“He was legally buried, but if he had to be cremated, it would have been a problem,” said Harry Carter III.

Carter is the man at the center of a scandal that has shuttered his funeral home and given the mortuary business in Chicago another black eye.

He claims that part of the reason police found at his funeral so many remains that should have been cremated is because the doctors involved were negligent about signing death certificates.

“The main issue is that doctors have disrespected the families and disrespected funeral homes for 40 years,” he said.

Obviously, Carter is in full defense mode.

The funeral home was shut down last month after police, responding to what they thought was a burglary, discovered the building had no heat or electricity.

Carter had been using a generator since October when ComEd cut off the electricity because of $50,000 in unpaid bills.

Police found nine bodies, including five bodies that were awaiting cremation. The remains were found in the garage, and on top of each other.

“What they saw was that somebody had improperly stacked remains and put them in different rooms,” said Carter, who maintained that disgruntled employees staged the scene police walked into.

The funeral director acknowledged that his staff had failed to deliver one body to the crematory even though the paperwork was completed.

But Carter also claims that four of the bodies police found, which have since been cremated, were still in the funeral home because doctors involved had not signed death certificates.

And he emphatically denies that the remains were decomposing and claims all the bodies had been embalmed.

“Those bodies did not have to be there. But because the doctors hadn’t done their jobs, we couldn’t cremate,” he said.

Apparently, although the state is transitioning to a computer program to record death certificates, not all doctors are up to speed.

“We are forced to physically meet doctors to get a piece of paper,” Carter told me. “I have employees chasing these doctors down like the police.”

Spencer Leak Sr., an activist and the longtime owner of AR Leak & Sons Funeral Homes, said signing death certificates is one of the “things doctors do when they get a chance to do it.”

He agreed that the transition from signed death certificates to the computer death certificate is creating a problem for funeral directors and families.

The American Medical Association recognizes that “physicians are the appropriate parties to certify cause of death,” according to its written policy.

The association also “supports the position that efforts to improve cause of death statistics are indicated and necessary.”

But according to Carter, not all doctors take the responsibility seriously.

“I have personally driven to Libertyville and called the doctor to say we will be there in 10 minutes, and when we get there, the doctor is not there,” Carter told me.

“There is no concern at all that I’ve been out on a wild goose chase,” he said.

On Friday, I called Dr. Rajiv Kandala’s office at Jackson Park Hospital to ask him why Shostak’s death certificate had not been signed.

Dr. Kandala did not return my call.

Obviously, Carter is desperately trying to repair the image of the business his late father started when Carter was only 8 years old.

Since the scandal broke, Carter has fielded only one inquiry about a funeral. His attempts to make arrangements with ComEd also have been unsuccessful.

Still, Carter isn’t giving up. In fact, friends are colleagues are hosting fund-raisers to help him keep the business going.

“This is the time other funeral directors should try to help,” Leak told me. “When one funeral home is in trouble, people look at the whole profession.”

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