What happens to a body after it’s taken to a funeral home?
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IDAHO FALLS — What happens to a body after someone dies and is taken to a funeral home?
It’s a question most of us don’t think about until a loved one passes away, but now many are asking it after 12 decomposed bodies and 50 fetuses were found inside Downard Funeral Home in Pocatello last week.
Brian Wood is the owner of Wood Funeral Home, a family-run business that’s been in Idaho Falls since 1911. He was shocked to learn about Downard as there are laws mandating how funeral homes should operate.
“The state of Idaho requires a human body, within 24 hours that a funeral home has them under their care, to either be refrigerated or embalmed,” Wood tells EastIdahoNews.com. Between their different buildings, Wood Funeral Home’s refrigeration units can hold up to 70 bodies.
When someone dies, family members notify the funeral home if they intend to have their loved one buried or cremated. The deceased person is picked up and taken to the funeral home, where it is refrigerated or embalmed – a chemical process to treat the body so it will be preserved for viewing.
If there are no plans for public viewing, the body remains in refrigeration until the county coroner reviews the death certificate and gives authorization for cremation or burial. Sometimes funeral homes receive bodies after they have been dead for some time.
“We have had some calls where the person has passed away and they’ve been gone for several days before anyone knows or is notified,” Wood says. “It takes about a week to get cremated, so we will get special permission from our coroner to speed up the cremation process (on decomposing bodies).”
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As the popularity of cremation has increased, Wood Funeral Home opened Eagle Rock Crematory East in Ammon two years ago. It’s used every day, and bodies are tracked from the moment they arrive until ashes are handed off to family members.
“All information is put in a computer, and a small metal disc tag accompanies the body from beginning to end,” Crematory Operations Manager Nicole Keller says. “We’re tracking it the whole time so people can feel more comfortable that we are properly taking care of their loved ones.”
When a person is ready to be cremated, the body is placed in a container and loaded onto a lift. The lift is raised up a metal door on the side of the retort, the chamber where the actual cremation takes place. The body is loaded into the retort, and the metal door closes.
In Eagle Rock Crematory East, family members can watch their loved ones be placed into the retort. If they want, they can push a button that closes the retort door and begins the cremation.
“The temperature can vary once the cremation has started from 1,500 degrees up to 2,000 degrees,” Keller says. “A cremation can take anywhere from 2.5 to 3.5 hours depending on the size of the person. We have a computer that monitors every aspect of the cremation.”
Once the cremation is finished, workers use tools similar to brooms and garden hoes to remove the remains from the retort. The remains are transferred to a processing room, where bone fragments and metal body parts (such as fillings or surgical implants) are removed. The ashes are then placed in an urn and given to the deceased’s loved ones.
It’s unclear if all of the decomposing bodies in Downard Funeral Home were meant to be cremated, but at least one was. Charlotte Mygrant died Aug. 17 and her sister, Eva Bode, tells EastIdahoNews.com she had arranged cremation with Lance Peck, Downard’s owner. It never happened.
Idaho State University announced Thursday the 50 fetuses found at Downard were part of a decades-old biology collection turned over to the funeral home in 2017.
“A lot of people don’t realize how often people are losing a child – usually through stillbirth,” Wood says. “We’re at EIRMC or Mountain View a few times a month helping families. We handle (those deaths) basically the same way. The baby is transferred to the funeral home and then goes into refrigeration with the rest of the deceased.”
Many funeral homes, including Wood, offer complimentary cremation or burial services for stillborn babies. Sometimes the family chooses to donate the remains to science or research institutions.
Wood says the situation with Downard Funeral Home raises many questions, but it is a reminder of how vital it is for funeral homes to be open and honest with their customers.
“I think it’s very important, for the sake of trust and transparency, to always allow them to be involved as they want to be,” he explains.