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'Wild west out there for funeral service': State recommends Colorado legislators regulate funeral directors

Colorado legislators must take next steps following recommendation from Department of Regulatory Agencies
Return to Nature Funeral Home
Posted at 10:33 PM, Jan 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-02 08:30:12-05

DENVER — Aaron Kucharik, a former funeral director who said he was licensed in Kansas for around a decade, left the profession shortly after moving to Colorado in 2021.

“Colorado has kind of been a joke of a state to all other states and mortuary professionals across this country," Kucharik said. “It is the wild, wild west out there for funeral service.”

The horrifying discovery at Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, where investigators say 190 bodies were found improperly stored, sparked the latest outcry for dramatic change in Colorado's funeral industry. However, it was not the first time the occupation has been under intense scrutiny in Colorado.

Inside look at the push to license Colorado funeral directors

The 2018 FBI raid at a Western Slope funeral home that doubled as a body broker, Sunset Mesa, made national headlines. Last year, a former Lake County Coroner was sentenced to 180 days in jail for mishandling the corpse of a stillborn baby in his funeral home related to actions from 2020.

In each instance, victims are shocked when they first learn funeral directors are not licensed in Colorado.

It was no different in October of 2023 when a horrific odor was reported inside of Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, owned by Jon and Carie Hallford. Investigators said they discovered bodies "stacked on top of each other and some were not in body bags," according to court records obtained when the Hallfords were arrested in Oklahoma around a month later. Some of the bodies had been inside of the funeral home since 2019, the court documents stated.

Funeral homes and crematories are regulated, which is necessary to register with the state.

“It was always said that, you know, if you lose your license in another state, just move to Colorado. You'll find a job tomorrow," Kucharik said. “How many bad instances do we have to see before something is done? And that is the sad thing — too many families have had to suffer before the state of Colorado and government agencies realize that this is a problem, and this is a problem of their own creation.”

Return to Nature Funeral Home

Local News

Arrest papers horrify families impacted by Return to Nature funeral home

Colette Bordelon
10:59 PM, Nov 08, 2023

On Dec. 29, 2023, the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) published a sunrise review on the funeral industry. The sunrise review process was established in 1985 and is meant to determine which occupations or professions must be regulated to protect public health, safety, or welfare.

Before the discovery at the funeral home in Fremont County, the Colorado Funeral Directors Association (CFDA) submitted an application for a sunrise review in June of 2023. The CFDA proposed licensing funeral service professionals. The proposal would grandfather the existing funeral directors in, as long as they submit an application and fee to the regulator while also passing a background check.

The proposal from the CFDA also recommends anyone new to the industry must:

  • Graduate from an accredited mortuary science school
  • Pass the National Board Examination administered by the International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards
  • Serve a one-year apprenticeship, which could be accomplished concurrently with the required educational program
  • Pass a basic background check/investigation

Ultimately, DORA's sunrise review found "it is clear that the public is harmed by the general lack of regulation of Funeral Service Professionals in Colorado," and recommends the General Assembly regulate funeral directors.

'Unbelievable': Family fights for funeral directors to be licensed in Colorado following Penrose investigation

Local News

Family wants CO funeral directors licensed amid Return to Nature investigation

Colette Bordelon
11:03 PM, Oct 10, 2023

State Representative Matt Soper, R-Delta and Mesa counties, has spearheaded legislation surrounding the funeral home industry since the investigation into Sunset Mesa in Montrose. He was very grateful to see DORA's recommendation to regulate funeral directors, and said the last time there was a sunrise review on the subject was in 2007.

“Without having a recommendation from DORA with the sunrise review to regulate the industry through licensure, it would have been very difficult, because it would have been very easy for anyone opposed to the bill to say, 'This is not even what DORA is recommending,'" Soper said. “The fact that in the sunrise review DORA is recommending licensure, it just means that our path is so much easier going forward.”

The sunrise review from 2007 was also submitted by the Colorado Funeral Directors Association, which requested licensure for funeral directors, embalmers and cremationists. Licensure is the most restrictive form of regulation. That review 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."

Soper said he plans to be one of the sponsors on a piece of legislation that aims to license funeral directors, and would also potentially consider how to handle situations where a funeral director may have lost their license while working in another state.

He also said the legislature will examine the law closely to see if the investigation in Penrose exposed any deficiencies that ought to be mended and strengthened. Soper said it is not clear yet if that would be included in the licensure bill, or would be a separate piece of legislation.

“We have lots of incredibly good funeral home directors, morticians, that work here in Colorado, and licensure is not to harm good people — good, honest, hardworking people who go above and beyond what you would expect of a funeral home director," Soper said. “This is not just pursuing an industry for the sake of pursuing an industry. What this is about, when we talk about licensure, is actually protecting the industry. We want to make sure that we continue to have good actors within the industry. Unfortunately for Colorado, we've had a number of headline stories that have cast a very dark shadow on the industry itself, and we want to return good trust back to the industry."

Those with the CFDA sent Denver7 the following statement in response to the sunrise review:

“The Sunset review that was published was the outcome that CFDA was looking for. We have been working with our state legislators to move forward with regulation. We have been on the front lines along with DORA and the legislators to not only protect the public but the funeral profession as a whole. We are looking forward to working with the state representatives to draft regulations that will be right for Colorado.”
Colorado Funeral Directors Association

The Colorado legislative session begins on Jan. 10.

Jon and Carie Hallford are scheduled for their preliminary hearings on Jan. 4 and Jan. 11, respectively.

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