EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. — Following the discovery of nearly 200 bodies inside the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, many Coloradans were shocked to learn funeral directors do not have to be licensed in the state. Legislators are looking to change that this session, and the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) agrees with the need for change.
The El Paso County coroner believes with intensified scrutiny from the public on what happens after death, there is also momentum to change the coroner system in Colorado.
“The person who is legally charged with investigating deaths is an elected position in nearly every county. That person is known as the coroner," explained El Paso County Coroner and Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Leon Kelly. “But in Colorado, to be the coroner doesn't require any meaningful qualifications... Now the Return to Nature and the coroner system are not the exact same issue. But in the same sense, it highlights what happens when people die. It's the thing that most of us don't want to think about until it happens to you and someone you love. And then it's all you can think about, right? It's an easy thing to push out of our minds, to not deal with for 150 years, until something really bad happens. And that's what we saw with Return to Nature.”
Kelly said essentially, someone running for a coroner position in Colorado must be 18 years old, a registered voter, a high school graduate, and have no felony offenses on their record.
“If you are elected coroner, and someone dies that requires an autopsy, that coroner can't perform that autopsy. That's the practice of medicine. And so, they require a forensic pathologist, also known as a medical examiner. That person is a physician who's specially trained in forensic sciences as well as doing autopsies, who has the appropriate training and the skills to essentially figure out the how and the why people die in much of the country," said Kelly. “Legislators have decided throughout time that the person in charge of investigating deaths and figuring out how and why people die should be a medical examiner, should be a physician. Colorado is one of the few states that hasn't transitioned to that system, still has the old elected coroner system, and more importantly, has not made any attempt to — really, since the beginning of the state — to update or modernize the requirements for the person who is in charge of investigating those deaths.”
Kelly said the current system to elect coroners in Colorado, without any medical qualifications, is antiquated and outdated. At the same time, he said there are not enough medical examiners to provide the necessary care for the entire country given the number of deaths that occur.
“However, there are things that can be put in place that raise the standards of death investigation in Colorado to ensure to the citizens that when something terrible happens to them or somebody they love, that the person in charge of investigating it, in charge of figuring out how and why this person has died, actually has the qualifications and the skill to do it," said Kelly. “There is the ability, and now I think the will by the public and by some of our other elected officials, to really take a look at what happens when people die. How do we treat them and their families? How do we ensure that they are being cared for in a way that not only offers them dignity in the case of the funeral system but offers the answers and closure in the case of the coroner system?"
He worked with State Representative Stephanie Vigil, D - El Paso County, to draft a piece of legislation that would raise the standards of who can be elected coroner within larger jurisdictions of the state. The draft currently states that for any Colorado county with more than 250,000 people, anyone who wants to be elected coroner must be a death investigator certified by and in good standing with the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators or is a forensic pathologist certified by and in good standing with the American Board of Pathology.
Vigil said the legislation should be introduced very soon.
“We have some rural communities in Colorado where maybe 10 people die a year. But then you have places like El Paso County and Arapahoe and Douglas and Boulder and some of these other places where we're investigating the most high profile, most tragic deaths imaginable. Mass shootings, homicides, suicides, fentanyl deaths, officer-involved shootings, things that require the public's trust and the assurance, honestly from our end, that we know how to do what we're doing," said Kelly. “All [the legislation] does is require that the person who's running these offices, these big offices who are going to see the biggest cases, have had the experience and the training that actually qualifies them and gives them the tools to perform the job at the highest level. That's all it's asking.”
The El Paso County Coroner's Office performs autopsies for 22 surrounding counties in addition to El Paso County. Kelly said that means they are essentially responsible for performing autopsies for one third of the state.
Kelly will not be seeking a third term as coroner in 2026.
“This job, it's all-consuming. It's 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," he said. “It's a hamster wheel of tragedy and chaos and then conflict. It's meaningful, and it's important, but it takes its toll on you over time... We have certainly been tested here over the last year in this office.”
Most recently, the office faced something they never imagined and worked to identify a majority of the remains that came to them from Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose.
“It gave us a better understanding of the role that this office, in particular, plays in the state. And that when something really, really bad happens in a third of Colorado, it doesn't function without us being there," said Kelly.
When asked what comes next without the coroner title, Kelly said he hopes it involves teaching and inspiring the next generation of doctors.
"Currently, we have probably half the number of forensic pathologists that we really need in this country. And it's a difficult job to do, and it's hard to get young doctors to go into it. But there's one thing we know: great teachers and great professors and great mentors tend to drive kids, young doctors into the fields that they practice," said Kelly. “So that would be my dream from this point forward is to create as many forensic pathologists as I can, because they're desperately needed and the work that they do is incredibly important.”