‘We’re at our most vulnerable in our lives’ — families gather at Colorado capitol to push regulation of funeral professionals

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Sheila Canfield-Jones, Rep. Brianna Titone, Sen. Dylan Roberts and Rep. Matt Soper, from left, at a news conference Monday, March 4, 2024 where Roberts and Soper announced a bill to regulate Colorado funeral homes.

Four years after her daughter Marella Canfield-Jones died at age 38, Shelia Canfield-Jones received an unexpected call from the FBI. The news they gave her was shocking — and heartbreaking: the ashes Canfield-Jones thought belonged to her daughter weren’t ashes at all but in fact powdered cement.

“I found out our daughter had been in Penrose for four years, decaying, piled up on top of other bodies,” she said, adding that her grief will always be there. 

“None of it goes away. You live it every day.”

Canfield-Jones had hired Return to Nature, a so-called green burial company in Penrose, Colo., to handle her daughter’s cremation. In fall 2023, investigators found hundreds of improperly stored bodies and evidence that the couple that owns the business sent fake ashes to families.

Canfield-Jones said it never occurred to her that she shouldn’t trust the funeral home.

“We saw this beautiful website that said that they would give us a nice tree when they cremated her,” said Canfield-Jones, “We're at our most vulnerable in our lives … They were so nice.”

After learning of Return to Nature’s deception, Canfield-Jones said she immediately started making calls to people working in the funeral home industry and to lawmakers, asking how something like this could happen. She was appalled by what she learned about the state’s regulations.

“I'm reading these laws and they're horrible and they're bad, and we need to do something now,” she said. 

Canfield-Jones was speaking at the state capitol Monday, where she’d come for the unveiling of a bipartisan bill that would put new regulations on funeral professionals in the state.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Sheila Canfield-Jones, whose daughter’s body was left to rot at a funeral home, at a news conference on Monday, March 4, 2024, where legislation was unveiled to regulate Colorado funeral homes. State Rep. Matt Soper, one of the bill’s sponsors, is in the background.

Colorado is currently the only state in the country that doesn’t regulate funeral home directors, and the situation at the Return to Nature funeral home is just one of several high-profile instances of egregious mismanagement in recent years.

In another case, the operators of a funeral home in Montrose were found to have sold body parts from hundreds of corpses without the permission of the deceased or their loved ones. Megan Hess, the former owner of Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors, is now serving a 20-year federal sentence.

“Too many Colorado families have had to face the gruesome and unacceptable reality that their loved one’s remains had been mishandled, lost, improperly cared for, sold and completely disrespected by bad actors in our state,” said Democratic Sen. Dylan Roberts of Frisco, one of the main sponsors of the legislation.

Roberts first got involved in the issue several years ago when a funeral home in his district in Leadville was caught mixing the ashes of a deceased newborn with cremains from other individuals, which led to an investigation and charges.

“Things have reached a breaking point,” he said.

The bill would require funeral home directors, morticians, embalmers, cremationists, and natural reductionists to hold a professional mortuary science degree, pass a national board examination, complete a one-year apprenticeship, and pass a criminal background check.

For those currently working in the industry without a degree, most would not be required to go back to school, but would still need to pass the background check and show that they’d apprenticed for a year. 

“What we're doing here with licensure is about restoring confidence in Colorado's funeral industry,” said Republican Rep. Matt Soper of Delta, another of the bill’s main sponsors. 

“Someone who's in a funeral home, it's the worst day of their life. Their loved one has died, and they don't want to be thinking about the fact that, ‘Is this funeral home taking care of my loved one with the right cooler conditions? Are they treating my loved one's body with dignity?’”

The Funeral Home Directors Association has been supportive of increased regulations but noted there also needs to be more enforcement to make sure it’s effective. In 2022, lawmakers gave the state authority to inspect funeral homes but did not assign a full-time employee to do inspections.

The Department of Regulatory Agencies supports the bill and plans to request additional funding for inspections.

“Our department will go back and look at what resources will be needed to ensure that we are actually able to enact the bill that's going to be passed,” said DORA Executive Director Patty Salazar.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
George Rosales, whose wife Christina was found in a hearse three years after her death, at a news conference on Monday, March 4, 2024, where legislation was unveiled to regulate Colorado funeral homes.

While the circumstances at Sunset Mesa and Return to Nature were national news, a report from DORA detailed a number of troubling incidents at other facilities around the state that did not make headlines. Those included improper refrigeration, poor record keeping, and shoddy embalming that led to decomposition and odor. There were also cases of remains laying in pools of their own fluids and unsecured ashes left on unclean cooling trays.

“At least six cases present issues of the public being harmed by an arguable lack of competency and at least eight cases present issues of intentional and/or criminal conduct resulting in harm to the public,” concluded the analysis, which was released at the end of 2023.

The most recent high-profile incident came to light in February. Denver police arrested the former owner of the Apollo Funeral & Cremation Services after discovering he had kept the cremated remains of at least 30 people and hidden a woman’s body in a hearse for two years.

“I had to relive my wife's life over again,” said George Rosales, whose wife was found in the hearse. “My family's all in tears. It is just a horrific thing to have to go through.”