In what might be one of the most egregious Funeral Home Negligence claims we have seen to date, a Harvard University Morgue Manager, Cedric Lodge, and an Arkansas Funeral Home Employee, Candace Chapman Scott, are accused of stealing human body parts and selling them online through a Facebook oddities group. Now both Scott and Lodge are facing up to 15 years in prison. Five other individuals are charged in connection to the allegations against Scott and Lodge, including a Berks County, Pennsylvania man, Joshua Taylor.
According to the indictment, between 2018 and 2022, a nationwide network of individuals bought and sold human remains that were stolen from Harvard Medical School and an Arkansas mortuary.
Specifically, according to the indictment, Cedric Lodge, a manager of the morgue for the Anatomical Gifts Program at Harvard Medical School, took organs and cadaver parts, originally donated for medical research, before they were cremated. Then he and his wife sold the human remains to others, on occasion allowing them to enter Harvard’s morgue to allow them to examine the cadavers and decide which body parts they wanted to purchase. According to the indictment, the body parts were then resold for profit online, including in a Facebook oddities group.
Similarly Arkansas Funeral Home worker, Scott stole human remains from her employer, an Arkansas mortuary and crematorium, in advance of their cremation. According to the Middle District of Pennsylvania’s press release, Scott stole the corpses of two stillborn babies due to be cremated and returned as cremains to their families. According to the indictments, more than $100,000 was exchanged in online payments for the remains.
We have received a few calls over the weekend asking if there is anything that can be done by the families that donated their loved one’s remains to Harvard Medical School and are writing this blog for people searching for more information in the future.
Why is the sale of human remains illegal?
Aside from being morally reprehensible and a betrayal of the funeral home and morgue employees’ duties to their employers, the decedents, and their loved ones the sale, the sale of anything that was stolen is illegal. Here, the remains were allegedly donated for education and research. According to the indictments, the Harvard Morgue employee and the Arkansas funeral home employee did not have permission to take the remains from their employers, let alone sell them. For that reason, just like any other theft, assuming the allegations are true, the sale would be illegal. Additionally, mailing and/or receiving money for stolen goods (or goods obtained through false pretenses) is also illegal.
However, there are very few instances where a private individual can enforce criminal statutes and codes and must proceed with civil remedies.
What kinds of Civil Remedies are available for Funeral Home Negligence and the unauthorized sale of human remains?
There are a few civil remedies for the sale of human remains. Some sound in theft and conversion, some sound in negligence, and others in the accidental or purposeful infliction of emotional distress. Specifically, if someone were to take or sell a loved one’s remains without permission potential civil claims include:
- Unfair Trade Practices – Most states have a law that prohibits misrepresentations or misleading sales tactics. In Pennsylvania it is the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (“UTPCPL”) 73 P.S. §§201-1, et seq. If a funeral home sold you on a cremation, but then sold the decedent’s body parts before cremating them, that could constitute a misrepresentation.
- Fraud – Promising something, having someone rely on the promise, then doing something completely different, while never intending to do what you promised, could also constitute fraud.
- Conversion and Unjust Enrichment – If someone took, sold, or profited from something that didn’t belong to them, the true owner of the property could sue for Conversion and Unjust Enrichment.
- Funeral Home Negligence / Malpractice – A funeral home that is entrusted with a loved one’s remains could be liable for the mistreatment of those remains.
- Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress – If someone accidentally causes you physical or emotional harm, you might be able to recover for the damages you suffered as a result.
- Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress – If you suffered emotional harm and can show that the person that caused the harm acted knowingly and purposefully, an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim could also be possible.
Does the sale of human remains constitute funeral home negligence?
In order for someone to be held liable for negligence, they first have to owe you a duty. In Pennsylvania, the Courts have stated that companies in the funeral services industry, like a funeral home or a cemetery, “bear a special responsibility to treat those aggrieved with truthfulness, accountability, and compassion.”
Specifically, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Toney v. Chester Cty. Hosp., found that a duty can be established in a funeral home negligence context where “there exists a special relationship where it is foreseeable that a breach of the relevant duty would result in emotional harm so extreme that a reasonable person should not be expected to endure the resulting distress.” 614 Pa. 100, 36 A.3d 83 (2011). The Court in Toney specifically listed “the relationship between the loved ones of the deceased and those responsible for caring for the corpse.” Id., at 112-13.
Here, a funeral home and morgue were responsible for caring for corpses that were donated for study and education. For that reason, one could argue that the individuals as well as the entities to which they were donated owed the family a duty to make sure that they received proper care. Any failure to do so could be viewed as negligent and justify a civil claim.
What can a family do to ensure that their loved one’s remains were not sold without their knowledge or approval?
If a believes that they provided their loved one’s remains to a funeral home or morgue, and believes that their loved one’s remains may have been stolen and sold online, they can ask the entity to provide documentation of the disposition of those remains. For example, when were they received, who interacted with them, and when? Unexplained delays in the cremation process or the lack of good records could be an indicator.
If the funeral home or morgue is not able to track the specific remains and their disposition, one could also argue that the entity in charge–in this case the Arkansas Funeral Home or the Harvard University Morgue–didn’t do enough and didn’t have the right checks and balances in place to prevent something like this from happening.
Call Kaminsky Law for a Free Funeral Home Negligence Consultation
Unfortunately, this can be a very difficult thing to navigate for a grieving family. If you believe that a funeral home, a cemetery, a morgue, or a crematory have been negligent or have engaged in unlawful conduct, Contact Us. The Lawyers at Kaminsky Law have years of experience dealing with funeral home negligence, burial issues at cemeteries, and other issues that might occur in the process of saying goodbye to your loved ones.