Funeral Company Accused of Overlooking ‘Inappropriate’ Touching of Bodies

In January, a funeral home worker in Pensacola, Florida, was allegedly found sexually interfering with a corpse in the facility’s body cooler. He fled and later took his own life.

While the incident appeared extraordinary, a manager at the funeral home at the time, who was later dismissed and wished to remain anonymous due to a fear of professional reprisal, has told Newsweek that his superiors at the company which operates it and many others across the U.S. knew of two prior incidents involving the same person.

His remarks and those made in conversations with other employees and investigators, which were recorded in Alabama and have been reviewed by Newsweek, paint a picture of issues with communication within Service Corporation International (SCI)—which operates the funeral home under the Dignity Memorial brand—and a series of missed opportunities.

The former manager provided the information on the proviso that the employees involved not be named publicly. He saw the incident as a corporate failing, and said he came forward because the public should know that “a business that is going to take care of a deceased loved one, that their practices for resolving issues was definitely faulted and faulty.”

Person in morgue
A stock image of a deceased person lying in a morgue under a sheet. A funeral home company is accused of overlooking incidents involving inappropriate touching of bodies prior to an incident involving the police.
Marcos Calvo/Getty

In May, after conducting an internal investigation into the incident, his employment was terminated after what he described as 12 years at the company without reprimand. He accused SCI of using him as a “scapegoat” to “either pacify or cover up the company’s prior knowledge of the past allegations,” and has since been employed elsewhere.

When Newsweek approached SCI with a request for comment, a spokesperson for Oak Lawn Funeral Home said in a statement: “This was a terrible incident that we handled immediately. We fully complied with a regulatory investigation, and conducted an investigation of our own, and the matter was resolved.”

They added: “We have safeguards in place to ensure that all decedents are cared for in a dignified manner.”

The January Incident

On January 17, 2023, police in Pensacola were called to Oak Lawn Funeral Home after an employee had called them to report another “actively engaging in sexual activity with a corpse,” Escambia County Sheriff’s Office said at the time.

The suspect had fled the property by the time officers arrived. Later the same morning, they received a report of a dead body lying next to a vehicle a short drive from the funeral home, with an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Oak Lawn Funeral Home said in a statement the same day that “out of respect for the privacy and confidentiality of the families” it would not be commenting on the incident, but would “fully cooperate” with investigators.

Based on the information given to Newsweek since, it can be disclosed that the employee in question had been a crematory operator and was a U.S. military veteran with over three decades of armed service.

The former manager with whom Newsweek spoke said that he was “one of the best operators” that he had worked with, and that while others had raised concerns about the man, he had never experienced anything suspicious about his behavior himself. He added that the operator had begun working at the funeral home a year to the day before the incident occurred.

But, prior to January 17, there had been two purported incidents involving inappropriate touching of corpses by the crematory operator reported to him by another colleague, which the former manager claims he alerted his superiors at SCI to immediately after the second incident occurred.

The Prior Incidents

In May or June last year, according to the former manager, he was told by another funeral home employee that “he thought that he saw [the operator] do something inappropriate with a decedent.” The former manager recalled being “stunned and shocked” by the allegation given how rare reported cases of sexual abuse of corpses are.

The former manager told both Newsweek and investigators that the employee said he “wasn’t sure” what he had seen and that “he didn’t want to make a report” at the time. He explained that the entrance to the cooler did not give a full view of the entire room.

Then, in August, the same employee approached the former manager with a similar allegation, namely “that he thought he saw the operator doing something inappropriate with one of the decedents.”

According to a recording made two days after the January 17 incident, a lawyer acting for the company said that in August the employee had alleged he saw a female corpse with the body bag opened and its gown pulled over its pelvis, and thought he saw the operator with his hand on an inappropriate part of the body.

In the same interview with the lawyer, the former manager was asked about a half-moon shaped tear on the body the employee had noticed while preparing it to be embalmed. While the manager recalled seeing broken skin on the outside of the body, he could not say for certain whether it had been caused by the operator and suggested responsibility for investigating its cause lay with the company.

Oak Lawn Funeral Home
Oak Lawn Funeral Home in Pensacola, Florida. A employee killed himself after allegedly being caught sexually abusing a corpse in January.

Upon receiving the second report, he says he immediately reported both claims to his superior, who directed him to contact the Human Resources department. “At this point, I knew from even if it’s even if it was something that was being made up by this guy, this was the second time that I’m being told—that now I have a duty to report this,” the former manager said.

The former manager said that a week later, a member of HR phoned both the employee who had made the allegations and the operator and concluded that “there was no merit found to the claim.” A regional manager on February 8 described the “investigation” conducted over the phone as “horses***.”

“At a minimum, I believe that with the severity of the accusation that there should have been more than a phone call that was made,” the former manager said. “I don’t think that you can get a good sense of…whether somebody is telling the truth or not by a three-minute phone call to an employee.”

He added that he also thought that “they should have suspended that operator” while an investigation was ongoing.

The regional manager claimed in the February 8 conversation that SCI had not called the operator’s professional references when he joined the company. He also said internal company communication “was so broken” and that both he and a senior member of the company with oversight on crematories did not know about the prior allegations.

“Any insinuations that we don’t check prior professional references, especially given the nature of what we do, are entirely false,” the Oak Lawn Funeral Home spokesperson said.

‘I Was the Fall Guy’

In the month following the January 17 incident, the former manager was moved from Oak Lawn to another funeral home that he managed in Mobile, Alabama. On May 9, he was pulled into a meeting with a managing director of the company and a HR chief and told he was being fired because his actions, they said, had made them lose confidence in his employment.

When he queried what those actions were, he was told that there were things they felt he could have brought to their attention sooner, but was declined specifics.

In the immediate aftermath of the January 17 incident, one of his managers had expressed to him in a conversation a desire to tell other employees “it wasn’t [the former manager’s] fault at all” but added: “I can’t say that because legally we can’t right now.”

The former manager said that because the police and the state government got involved, he believed SCI “needed somebody to show the state that they were being forthright in their investigation with the incident—and therefore I was the fall guy for the company.”

He maintained that he had followed company protocol when handling the allegations made to him, claimed being moved and subsequently dismissed hurt his reputation as a funeral home worker in a close-knit industry.

As far as he was aware, other employees involved in handling the prior allegations—including the person who conducted the phone investigation—were moved to other regions but not dismissed.

While he admitted it would be “foolish” not to say he felt aggrieved by the situation, the January 17 incident and the company’s handling of the overall situation made him consider leaving the company before he was let go and even leave the industry as a whole after 26 years working in funeral care.

“I feel like they took the power from me to be able to quit,” the former manager said. “They quit me before I quit them.”

Instead of seeking retribution, he stressed his motivation to speak out was because “the public has a right to know that this incident was not an isolated incident.” He added that he would have come forward in January but “didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize my employment.”

Newsweek approached Florida’s Division of Funeral, Cemetery, and Consumer Services on Friday and again on Tuesday for information regarding its investigation into the matter, but did not receive a response.

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