‘Tragic’ cases prompt bill making it easier to inspect Colorado funeral homes, crematories

Courtesy of Montrose Daily Press
Megan Hess ran a body brokering business under the same roof as Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors. She pleaded guilty to mail fraud in federal court on Tuesday, July 5, 2022.

Updated February 11, 2022 @ 7:00 a.m.

The bill was approved by the House Business Affairs and Labor Committee in an 11 to 1 vote. It would go into effect in August if it becomes law.

Colorado lawmakers have introduced a bill that would make it easier to inspect hundreds of funeral homes and crematories across the state for potential health and ethical violations.

The legislation, HB22-1073, would give the director of the state’s Division of Professions and Occupations power to inspect funeral homes without first receiving official complaints from customers. The bill reworks state code to let the regulatory agency enter funeral homes on their “own initiative or after receiving a single complaint from a customer.” 

The change is a direct response to a series of recent criminal cases involving Western Slope and high country funeral home operators. Both operators allegedly mishandled dozens of human corpses, which could have been prevented if inspections were easier to initiate, the bill’s sponsors argue.

“Because of a carve out in state law, state inspectors have very little authority to enter funeral homes until there’s been serious misconduct or criminal allegations,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat representing communities in Eagle and Routt counties. “We have more authority to inspect a beauty salon than we do a funeral home in our state right now.” 

In one case, the owners of Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors, a nonprofit funeral home in Montrose, allegedly sold body parts without permission between 2010 and 2017 They’re accused of using a body brokerage service they operated out of the funeral home. Reuters first reported on a Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry into Sunset Mesa’s practices in 2018. 

The investigation prompted a raid and a grand jury indictment of the owners, Megan Hess and Shirley Koch, in 2020. The business shut down soon after. 

In a separate, December 2020 incident, the state barred former Lake County Coroner Shannon Kent and his wife, Staci, from operating six funeral homes they owned in various mountain communities. The state order came several months after a Leadville customer alerted the local sheriff’s office about potential misconduct.. 

Local law enforcement notified state regulators, who investigated the properties. Their efforts uncovered a corpse that had been left unattended in a coffin at the couple’s Silverthorne funeral home for “several months.” Similar unsanitary conditions were discovered at the couple’s funeral homes in Gypsum and Leadville. Other accusations mention the possible mixing of cremation ashes and claims that customers may have been given the wrong remains.

Police arrested and charged the Kents for allegedly tampering with a deceased human body in February 2021. Both pleaded not guilty. A federal trial is scheduled for March.  

Emails to the Kents’ and Hess’ personal attorneys were not returned prior to publication. 

In both cases, the operators weren’t inspected by state regulators until law enforcement received a tip from customers or the media, Roberts said. 

“What happened to these families is disgusting and tragic,” Roberts said. “And we can prevent this from happening to families in the future.” 

The legislation has support from the state’s largest trade association for funeral homes, the Colorado Funeral Directors Association. It comes on the heels of a law passed in 2020 that prohibited anyone with more than a 10 percent stake in a funeral home or crematory from running a body broker operation. 

The inspections bill has its first hearing Thursday before the House Business Affairs and Labor Committee.