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Funeral Board Investigation Incomplete, Family Claims

May 13, 2010
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Funeral Board Investigation Incomplete, Family Claims

imageLOGAN, W.Va. – Tammy Wellman noticed the smell as soon as she entered the funeral home on a hot July evening last year.

“It hit you right in the face,” she said, “and it smelled just like a sewer.”

She and others soon realized the source — the body of her 50-year-old brother, Jackie Lee Hensley, lying in his casket.

Nearly a year later, she and her siblings are questioning the way the state investigates complaints about funeral homes. The West Virginia Board of Funeral Service Examiners says James Funeral Home did nothing wrong in the Hensley case.

Wellman’s family had hired the funeral home in Logan several times and never had any problems. This time, they believe Hensley was not properly embalmed.

Eventually, Hensley’s son hired Charleston lawyer Bruce Freeman and received a settlement from the business, Wellman said. However, she says she’s not interested in a lawsuit. Instead, she filed a complaint with the state board, which regulates more than 300 funeral homes.

“I just wanted to find out what happened to my brother’s body,” she said

Last month, Wellman got word that the board had dismissed the complaint. She believes it didn’t fully investigate the situation.

“They didn’t talk to anybody,” Wellman said.

Hensley started working as a coal miner right after graduation from Logan High School. Everybody liked him – his nickname was “Jackrabbit” – but he always seemed to have bad luck, his siblings say.

In 2005, he was left disabled after a mine roof collapse. He got prescriptions for the pain — and got hooked on drugs.

On July 7, 2009, he tried to chew a Fentanyl pain patch. It got stuck in his throat. His son found him in the bathroom of an apartment they shared.

He was taken to Logan Regional Medical Center, where doctors pronounced him dead within about 20 minutes.

The viewing was held July 10, with a funeral the day after that.

Funeral home owner Chad Akers said he wouldn’t comment in detail about Wellman’s complaint because he is “not allowed to talk about specific cases.”

“We did everything that we needed to do,” he said.

In a written response to Wellman’s complaint, the funeral home says its employees noticed “a strong odor” on Hensley’s body when it was received at the state Medical Examiner’s Office. The funeral home took steps to reduce the odor and thought it was taken care of by the time of the viewing, the response states.

The response also denies that the smell got worse over time. It also says Wellman didn’t complain to Akers until 10 days after the viewing.

Constance Sloan, executive director of the state board, said the board reviewed hospital and embalming records and “found that the funeral director did not deviate from the normal standards.”

“You can’t second-guess somebody,” she said of the funeral director’s records and statements. “There was a very long discussion, and all of the records were looked at.”

“Even if you had interviewed six people and they had said there was a problem, it just boils down to, did the funeral home do what they should have done,” she said, “and based upon the records of the embalming room, [it did].”

The board has a two-person committee that looks into complaints and recommends action to the full board.

Disciplinary actions can include a reprimand, censure, probation, suspension of license, fines and mandatory attendance at continuing-education seminars.

The board gets about six or seven complaints per year, Sloan said. It hasn’t issued severe sanctions in “more than a couple of years.”

According to a letter Wellman received from the state, the complaint committee met March 2, and the full board voted March 3.

She and her sisters say Hensley wasn’t treated with respect.

“I felt like he was like some dog that got hit on the side of the road,” said Shirley Butcher, another sister.

In the casket, her brother looked like an “animal when it’s dead and swollen,” she said.

Butcher and Wellman say they met with a state medical examiner after the funeral. They say he showed them pictures and told them Hensley’s body was not decomposed at the time of his autopsy.

Another sister, Pat Clark, said she saw gnats around Hensley’s eyes, nose and mouth at the viewing.

Now, she said, “when I see gnats, automatically his face comes to me.”

When it was time to close the casket, Clark didn’t approach her brother’s body to say goodbye.

“I’ve never smelled anything like that in my life,” Clark said. “I can’t even describe it.”

Wellman’s complaint alleges that Wellman saw flies and gnats around the body. The funeral home’s response says the owner denies “there were flies on or around the body . . . “

Gary Conley, an evangelist who works with Wellman’s husband as a surface miner, sang and spoke a few words at the funeral. He was standing about six feet from the casket.

“It was definitely an odor,” he said. “It’s really hard to describe.”

He also noticed black spots “like bruising” on Hensley’s neck, forehead and the side of his face.

No one complained to the funeral home during the viewing. Some people wondered whether the autopsy or the drugs in Hensley’s system could have caused the odor, his siblings say.

According to the state’s letter, the complaint committee “reviewed in depth the hospital records and the embalming record and discussed problems associated with autopsy cases where embalming is much more difficult because of the condition of the body after autopsy.”

Autopsies can make embalming more complicated because of incisions to the body and disruption to the organs, said Vernie Fountain, owner of the Fountain National Academy of Professional Embalming Skills in Springfield, Mo.

He emphasized that he did not know any specifics of this case. In general, he said, an autopsy “makes it a little more difficult, procedure-wise.”

However, certain techniques — such as additional injections with preservative chemicals — can help, he said.

Fountain is a national expert on embalming in cases where trauma to the body is especially bad, and specializes in postmortem reconstructive surgery techniques. His career has focused on helping families hold open-casket viewings, which he says can help people properly begin the grieving process.

Hensley’s siblings say this funeral left them humiliated.

“It was embarrassing,” Wellman said. “My brother wouldn’t want people to remember him that way.”

Now, he is buried in a family cemetery covered with wild chamomile flowers, on a hillside overlooking an old coal camp in Verdunville.

“This was my brother, who I loved,” Wellman said, “and he shouldn’t have been done that way.”