- Associated Press - Monday, February 2, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Grieving family members and friends walked up to a casket in an Edina funeral home only to find the wrong body.

That mistake, from last spring, is the most jarring in a growing number of complaints lodged by Minnesota families in their darkest moments. State officials say funeral homes, crematories and mortuaries are in dire need of more oversight - less than half of those facilities statewide have been inspected in the last two years.

“Laying out the argument for needing more inspectors, that would be a very good one to wake a legislator up,” Rep. Carolyn Laine, a Columbia Heights Democrat familiar with mortuary issues, said of the incident in Edina.

Gov. Mark Dayton is aiming to staff up the state’s mortuary science inspections to tackle those issues in his proposed budget. An additional $374,000 over the next two years, paid by raising licensing and other industry fees for funeral directors, would help inspectors meet the state law that all funeral facilities be inspected every other year.

Gil Acevedo, who manages the state’s mortuary science program, said it’s a small but worthy investment that will help ensure “there is dignity, there is respect in the whole process.”

Minnesota’s mortuary regulators have received one complaint a week recently, ranging from lapsed licenses to moving a body without a licensed funeral director present to improperly disposing of the dangerous chemicals used in funeral homes.

But the complaint lodged at the Washburn-McReavy funeral chapel in Edina was by far the most egregious. Washburn-McReavy operates 18 facilities in the Twin Cities metro area.

Funeral home staff set up for a visitation last April, but employees were quickly notified the wrong body was displayed. To verify whether they had made an error, an employee snapped a cell phone photo without asking for family members’ permission and sent it to a fellow staff member, according to the state’s investigation of the incident.

In a statement, the funeral home said a “paperwork error” led to the mix-up, which they quickly fixed.

Washburn-McReavy staff also didn’t tell family members they had mistakenly put out their loved one out for the wrong service - the family didn’t find out until Minnesota mortuary science officials alerted them in September.

“We did not wish to add to the distress already present over the loss of a loved one,” the company said in a statement.

The state fined Washburn-McReavy $18,000 for the mistake, and required extra education and safeguards. The company said it has reviewed and tightened its practices to ensure those errors don’t happen again.

Acevedo said those kinds of mistakes are rare. Darlyne Erickson, executive director of the Minnesota Funeral Directors Association, agreed.

“It hurts everyone. It’s a human error. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did,” she said.

The state’s regulator has often been understaffed over the years, Erickson said. She said the association is on board with fee increases - the first hike since 2005 - to permanently fund three inspectors.

But the issues at the state level don’t just stop with complaints themselves. The lack of manpower also means investigations take six months or more to be completed, putting closure for grieving families out of reach.

In Edina, the complaint about the visitation body mix-up wasn’t closed for seven months.

Acevedo said the governor’s proposal would put them on track to boost inspections and cut down on investigation time.

Though she acknowledged the troubling incident in Edina, Erickson said staff at that funeral home and others across Minnesota are committed to giving families a chance to grieve without error.

“You’re not a funeral director if you don’t have respect for the family and for the deceased,” she said.

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