Penrose, Colorado’s Return to Nature Body Count Rises to 189

Funeral Industry News Green Funerals Laws & Regulations October 24, 2023
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Penrose, Colorado’s Return to Nature Body Count Rises to 189

The nightmare continues for authorities investigating the horrific October 6 discovery of decomposing bodies at a storage building owned by a Colorado green funeral home. Although initial reports estimated that 115 bodies were improperly stored inside the Return to Nature facility in Penrose, that number has now increased to 189 — and they’re still counting.

Last week, Connecting Directors shared details of the gruesome scene at Return to Nature, as well as some dubious background information on owner Jon Hallford. The story also recounted the growing calls for changes to Colorado’s notoriously lax deathcare laws. That outcry, as well as fervent interest from lawmakers, has grown exponentially along with the number of remains experts are working feverishly to identify.

11 recommendations

One of the most frequently-voiced suggestions concerning Colorado’s regulation of the funeral industry, at least in the media, is to require funeral directors to have completed minimum education requirements and become licensed. Currently, the state does not require the people working in the deathcare profession to have “a certificate, education or license,” although the funeral home itself is required to renew its license annually.

Interestingly, though, a state report released just days after the Penrose disaster made headlines doesn’t list licensing as one of 11 recommendations for tightening up deathcare laws. 

According to Colorado’s KRDO news station, a report released on October 13 by the Colorado Office of Policy, Research, and Regulatory Reform within the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) does not address individual licensing. KRDO reports:

Instead, the report recommends Colorado continue the use of protected titles. This means someone who uses the title of “Funeral Home Director” must meet specific requirements, including “at least 2,000 hours practicing as a funeral director and directing at least 50 funerals or graveside services.” If a professional uses a protected title without meeting those state requirements and the state receives a complaint, the business could be forced to shut down.

The report said a review of funeral service professionals and licensing will be submitted to legislators at the end of December, so this report “recommends maintaining the status quo, pending the results of the sunrise review. Doing so will help to prevent any confusion should the two reports come to different conclusions after the application of differing analytical criteria.”

Too little, too late?

This isn’t the first time Colorado’s funeral laws have been in the spotlight. The atrocious body brokering scheme that sent the mother-daughter owners of Colorado Springs’ Sunset Mesa Funeral Home to prison resulted in a new law allowing “surprise” inspections of deathcare facilities. Sadly, reports KRDO, only nine such inspections have been made since the law went into effect in 2022. 

One of the 11 recommendations made in the DORA report addressed inspections, suggesting that the Director of the Division of Professions and Occupations be required to conduct more “routine, periodic” inspections and that the inspections be allowed outside the current “business hours” restriction.

Another recommendation would allow inspections of funeral homes after the facility’s license has lapsed. Return to Nature’s license expired in November 2022, and under the current laws, the facility was off-limits to inspectors after that date — even though Return to Nature was still selling and performing services well into 2023.

Fallout is yet to be determined

Astonishingly, Hallford, the owner of Return to Nature, doesn’t seem to have been formally charged by authorities. It’s not even clear what laws — if any — he has broken. The local sheriff has stated that his office has been in contact with Hallford and his wife, and that they are cooperating; it seems no potential charges have even been mentioned, let alone pending arrests.

According to one source, families whose loved ones were handled by Return to Nature received death certificates stating that one of two area crematories had performed the cremation. However, those two crematories have stated they never performed these cremations, leaving families to wonder what they actually received from Return to Nature as cremains.

For now, families are the primary focus of authorities. Multiple agencies are working diligently to identify the remains found in the facility using DNA, fingerprints, and dental records to provide families the information they so desperately need. Agency representatives have shared that the number of remains could grow as they continue their investigation.