No More Excuses: A Solid Chain of Custody System is No Longer an Option
A restaurant serves your steak well-done when you ask for medium-rare. The FedEx truck delivers your package to the wrong house. Your contractor builds your kitchen island four inches too wide. Annoying? Yes. Deserving of a bad Yelp review or social media rant? Perhaps. But psychologically devastating, newsworthy, or lawsuit-inducing? Probably not.
Mistakes will happen in every occupation. But when you’re a deathcare professional and you’re handling not dinner or cabinetry, but people’s loved ones, you simply can’t afford to make them. You know this, so you put processes in place to avoid errors at all costs. So how did the following errors — all of which hit the internet in a span of only 10 days — occur?
June 8, 2021: FBI exhumes 19 bodies believed to be buried in wrong graves in Detroit cemetery
June 9, 2021: Australian couple’s stillborn child given to wrong family, who then cremated her
June 11, 2021: Family claims at father’s burial Michigan funeral home had wrong body in casket
June 18, 2021: California family says mortuary gave them leftover ashes of other people
No matter where you serve as a deathcare professional, whether it’s a cemetery, funeral home, crematory, or pathology lab, mistakes can destroy your reputation and effectively end your career, not to mention bankrupt a business.
“If you’re trying to put a number on this type of mistake, don’t bother,” shares Poul Lemasters, a funeral director, embalmer, and attorney with a specialization in deathcare and funeral law. “In the eyes of a family there is no number that will make it better.”
Stop the Madness
The best — and perhaps, the only — way to avoid these mix-ups is to establish a solid chain of custody system within your organization. You have to know, without any hint of a doubt, from the moment the remains are placed into your care to the time they reach final disposition or are returned to the family, that you can positively, unequivocally, provide positive, proper identification of that individual.
“Identification is truly the building block of everything we do in deathcare. If we do not have the right person – it doesn’t matter how amazing our services are – it’s the wrong body,” says Lemasters. “Identification seems so simple, yet we see more and more cases where identification isn’t done, and the end result is far from simple. For deathcare providers, take the time to create a program that is built with proper identification as the first, last and every step in between.”
It’s About CYA … and More
Larry Stuart, Jr. is keenly aware of this conundrum. As the founder and CEO of Cremation Strategies and Consulting, Stuart has become the de facto expert on chain of custody in the deathcare profession. He’s spoken to virtually every deathcare group in existence on the importance of crematory procedures and maintenance, with chain of custody being a common topic.
“The sad thing is it’s not just about making the mistakes,” he says. “What happens when these things hit the news? Other family members start wondering whether or not they’ve got the right person in that urn. Yes, and plaintiff attorneys are looking for those people because you can not prove who’s in that urn once the cremation happens, right? There’s no DNA left, so the only thing you have is your chain of custody records. And if you have bad ones, they’re worthless.”
Size and Age Don’t Matter
Stuart explains that a common misconception — especially among smaller firms — is that chain of custody errors won’t, or can’t, happen to you.
“A client once said, ‘Larry, we don’t need a chain of custody. We know everyone we serve. We’re a small firm, a small town; we don’t need to worry about ID,’” Stuart shared. “I developed a [chain of custody procedure] for him because his daughter insisted. I’ve had three calls over the years from the client saying, ‘You know, I’m always willing to admit when I’m wrong. I just want you to know that the system you set up really does work and we do need it.’”
While existing operations without a chain of custody procedure should certainly consider implementing one, well, yesterday, it’s always best to equip a new venture with a reliable system from day one. That’s what Justin Crowe did when he established Parting Stone in 2019.
“One of the most nerve-wracking things about starting this company was the reality that handling and shipping cremains was not like an Amazon order where if you accidentally ship it to the wrong person, it’s fine and you just ship another one,” Crowe says. “That’s why we put so much energy and significant resources into setting up and continuously improving our chain of custody.”
Next Up: Chain of Custody Solutions
If you glean anything from the aforementioned news stories and these testimonials from other deathcare professionals, it should be that there’s really no excuse for not having a chain of custody program in place — and there’s no better time than the present to get started.
We’ve explored several different options for chain of custody implementations, from manual policies and procedures to mobile barcode solutions, and we’ll share what we’ve found in an upcoming edition of Connecting Directors.