More than a hundred bodies found at ‘green’ funeral home in Penrose after neighbors reported foul smell

Return to Nature Funeral Home
Return to Nature Funeral Home near Colorado Springs.

Police said Friday they have found at least 115 bodies at Colorado ‘green’ funeral home under investigation for improper handling of remains.

Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper said they are coordinating with other agencies to determine if there is any wrongdoing.

The Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Colorado, performed “green” burials without embalming chemicals or metal caskets.

The investigation centered on a building owned by the funeral home where local residents reported smelling a foul stench before police became involved.

Deputies were called to the single-story building on Tuesday night in reference to a suspicious incident. Fremont County Sheriff’s Office investigators returned the next day with a search warrant and found the improperly stored remains.

Authorities said Friday at the press conference they believe there is currently no health risk to the public. They declined to describe in detail the scene inside the 2,500-square-foot facility next door to the town’s post office, the size of an average U.S. home.

“It is not clear if a crime has been committed, that is a focus of the investigation at the state and federal level,” FBI spokeswoman Vikki Migoya said.

Investigators were in touch with the funeral home operators and they were cooperating, Cooper said.

Penrose is a town of about 3,000 people.

Trash bags could be seen outside the entrance of the company’s building, with two law enforcement vehicles parked in front. Yellow police tape cordoned off the area and a putrid odor pervaded the air.

A hearse was parked at the back of the building, in a parking lot overgrown with weeds. Near the squat building was a post office and a few scattered homes, spaced out between dry grass and empty lots with parked semi-trucks.

Under Colorado law, green burials are legal but state code requires that any body not buried within 24 hours must be properly refrigerated.

Joyce Pavetti, 73, can see the funeral home from the stoop of her house and said she caught whiffs of a putrid smell in the last few weeks.

“We just assumed it was a dead animal,” she said. On Wednesday night, Pavetti said she could see lights from law enforcement swarming around the building and knew something was going on.

The building has been occupied by different businesses over the years, said Pavetti, who once took yoga classes there. She hasn’t seen anyone in the area recently and noticed the hearse behind the building only in recent months, she said.

Neighbor Ron Alexander thought the smell was coming from a septic tank, adding that Wednesday night’s blur of law enforcement lights “looked like the 4th of July.”

The father of a 25-year-old U.S. Navy serviceman who died last summer said Return to Nature handled his son’s body between the time of its arrival back in Colorado and an Aug. 25 funeral service at Pikes Peak National Cemetery east of Colorado Springs.

“I mean, there’s obviously questions after hearing that there is something going on but there’s not any information that I can go off of to really make any kind of judgement on it,” said Paul Saito Kahler, of Fountain, Colorado.

The Return to Nature Funeral Home provides burial of non-embalmed bodies in biodegradable caskets, shrouds or “nothing at all,” according to its website. The company also provides cremation services. Messages left for the Colorado Springs-based company were not immediately returned.

“No embalming fluids, no concrete vaults. As natural as possible,” it says on its website.

The company charges $1,895 for a “natural burial.” That doesn’t include the cost of a casket and cemetery space, according to the website.

The funeral home also performs cremations that involve no chemicals or unnatural materials — “just you and the Earth, returning to nature,” according to its website.

Return to Nature was established six years ago in Colorado Springs, according to public records.

Fremont County property records show that the funeral home building and lot are owned by Hallfordhomes, LLC, a business with a Colorado Springs address that the Colorado Secretary of State declared delinquent on Oct. 1 for failing to file a routine reporting form that was due at the end of July.

The LLC changed addresses around Colorado Springs three times since its establishment in 2016 with a post office box. Hallfordhomes still owes about $5,000 in 2022 property taxes on its building in Penrose, according to Fremont County records.

A green burial refers to burying bodies that have not been embalmed. That’s different from human composting, in which the body is placed in a vessel and transformed into soil.

The Return to Nature Funeral Home was licensed in Colorado Springs in 2017. There were no disciplinary actions against the company listed on a state license database. There was not a separate license for the Penrose facility and it wasn’t known if one was needed. Messages left with licensing authorities were not immediately returned.