PENROSE, Colo. — A family is fighting for Colorado funeral directors to be licensed amid an investigation into the alleged improper storage of 115 human bodies at a southern Colorado funeral home.
Multiple Colorado agencies, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), are working to identify the bodies at Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, roughly 33 miles south of Colorado Springs.
Abby Swoveland used Return to Nature when her mother, Sally, passed away on August 5.
“Oh my gosh, Sally was one of the funniest people you could ever meet. She's very sassy, said what was on her mind," said Swoveland. “She had some lung problems and breathing problems, and so those were just getting worse.”
Swoveland said she was her mother's caretaker until a fall fractured Sally's pelvis. She died soon after the fall.
“Even if you have time with them with failing health, and you know what the outcome is going to be, you're still never ever prepared for it. Ever," Swoveland said.
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Swoveland said her mother wanted to be cremated, so she took time selecting a funeral home that could cremate Sally locally.
“When I found Return to Nature and called them, they had great reviews on Google, too. Everyone said they were great. They called me right back and were very kind," Swoveland recalled. "I specifically asked them about if the cremation would be done in town. And they assured me that yes, while they didn't own their own crematorium, they had partnerships with people in town, and that it all would be handled locally. Came to find out later that wasn't true.”
Swoveland said she had to follow up with Return to Nature in order to obtain her mother's ashes.
“They just handed me a box with her ashes in them, and a folder that had a death certificate in it. I came to find out there should have been a certificate of cremation and maybe some other things included that were not," said Swoveland.
As Swoveland watched the news unfold about Return to Nature being under investigation, she was horrified.
“We were just moving and walking with our grief, and maybe feeling a little better. And this just came and took us back to the beginning," said Swoveland. “We decided to make a call to the crematorium listed on her death certificate. And they had no record of my mother. So, we don't know what happened, where she is. Obviously, that box that I have is not her.”
When State Representative Matt Soper, R - Delta and Mesa Counties, learned about the investigation in Penrose, he was appalled. He believes it is another reason why funeral directors should be licensed in Colorado.
“It's really shocking that in my tenure as a legislator, which is almost six years, this is the third major case concerning funeral home directors either doing something that's immoral, unethical, illegal," said Soper. “This case illustrates, once again, why funeral directors need to be regulated in Colorado. We're the only state in the union in which funeral directors are not regulated.”
Soper first got involved with legislation specifically surrounding abuse of a corpse following the FBI investigation into the directors of Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose, which doubled as a body broker.
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The first bill Soper helped pass into law was in 2018, which separated the ownership between mortuaries and tissue donor banks to ensure a person couldn't have more than 10% ownership in each. Then in 2020, Soper helped pass a bill that made abuse of a corpse a felony. Before that, he said it was a low-level misdemeanor.
"Certainly under the abuse of the corpse legislation, when I read our definition that's in there, I would say that that definition could be satisfied here [in Penrose]. I would certainly love to see prosecutors pursue that," said Soper.
Last year, Soper helped passed another bill, which allows the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) to go into funeral homes and inspect the shop floor. DORA is the state agency that regulates funeral homes.
A sunset review of funeral homes and crematories will be published this Friday according to Katie O'Donnell, director of communications and public engagement for DORA. The annual reviews "generally question the need for regulation to protect the public. If regulation is determined to be needed, the sunset review will look for the least restrictive level of regulation consistent with the public interest," O'Donnell said.
Since funeral directors are not licensed, that subject would be part of a sunrise review, which is expected to be published by December. Once the sunset reviews are finished, the public will have the chance to provide feedback related to funeral directors and licensing during the sunrise process, O'Donnell told Denver7 in an email.
“Myself and other legislators are sitting on the edge of our seats, because we're curious what DORA is going to report back to us," said Soper. "If they report back anything short of licensure, I kind of would be shocked. Because Colorado is the only state in America that does not require some sort of licensure or board certification for funeral directors that involves education, standards, morals and ethics training as well.”
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Swoveland feels disgusted and sick that funeral directors are not licensed in Colorado.
“One of the things that first came up for me was shame and failure, and feeling like I had failed my mom in choosing these people. But then I had to recognize no, I was duped," Swoveland said. “You have to have a license to drive a car, but you don't have to to run a funeral home. Unbelievable.”
She hopes if anything happens as a result of the investigation in Penrose, it includes changes made to the qualifications to become a funeral director.
“I'm trying to get out here and make the story known and help affect change, so this never ever happens to another family. We as a state need to do better in protecting ourselves, our citizens. And I'll do whatever I can to help see that through," Swoveland said. “My heart is so, so heavy with this and I carry that around every day.”
Swoveland claims part of the promise made by Return to Nature Funeral Home was that a tree would be planted in honor of the decedents. She is spearheading an effort to plant those trees for the 100+ people who were found inside of the funeral home. A GoFundMe fundraiser states the goal is to raise money and plant the trees, in order to create a memorial.
A sunrise review from 2007 submitted by the Colorado Funeral Director's Association requested licensure for funeral directors, embalmers and cremationists. Licensure is the most restrictive form of regulation.
The 2007 review states "because Colorado remains the only state with no direct regulation of the funeral service industry, practitioners who have had difficulties in other states have relocated to Colorado. As a result, the Applicant believes that consumers are not adequately protected, thereby rendering them susceptible to harm by unregulated funeral service practitioners."
The review continues to say only 18% of funeral service practitioners had obtained a certification from the Colorado Funeral Service Board at the time.
The review ultimately determined "no evidence was presented that demonstrated that Colorado practitioners lacked competency, skills or education to warrant an increase in regulatory oversight through a licensure program."
The FBI is asking anyone who may be a victim of what happened at Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose to complete a questionnaire. Denver7 reached out to Return to Nature Funeral Home, and did not receive a response at the time of publication.