Riverdale funeral home closed after 40 bodies found stacked in garage

A Prince George's County funeral home has lost its license after a state inspector discovered what appeared to be 40 bodies intended for cremation haphazardly piled in body bags stacked in its garage.

The Maryland State Board of Morticians and Funeral Directors summarily suspended the license of the Chambers Funeral Home & Crematorium in Riverdale on Monday. The emergency suspension affects two morticians as well as their business license.

"I saw the photos," said Hari P. Close, the state funeral board's president. "It's a rare situation, tasteless and shameful."

He said his findings have been sent to Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Close said the funeral home was allowed to complete the cremation of the bodies at its business. It has until Friday to complete any other funeral arrangements and then will be closed.

In late April, a state investigator made an unannounced inspection to check on "deficiencies noted at a previous inspection."

The inspector was reviewing a refrigerated area located in a garage structure that houses the crematory. The inspector noticed a "large pile, approximately 12 by 12 feet, of body bags containing human remains strewn on the floor of the garage in front of a removal van. There was visible leakage from the body bags as well as a pungent odor."

The inspector's notes said an unnamed funeral home employee said, "Don't get upset about all the bodies in there."

William Chambers, one of the funeral home's owners, said he would fight the license suspension at a hearing at the end of the month.

"We felt we handled things appropriately, but the board felt differently," he said Tuesday. "We have limited space, and things were in disarray. It was unacceptable."

Chambers said many of the bodies awaiting cremation were cadavers from Georgetown University's School of Medicine. He said the school had a contract with his firm to remove and cremate the cadavers "at one time." He said the practice led to numerous bodies arriving at his crematorium simultaneously.

"It was agreed to, but discouraged," Chambers said of the practice of bringing multiple cadavers to the crematory.

Stephen Ray Mitchell, the dean for medical education at Georgetown University School of Medicine, confirmed that the school contracted the funeral home to take its anatomical donor remains for cremation, and that prior to Monday, the school knew of no problems.

In a statement, Mitchell said, "The School of Medicine's contract with the Chambers Funeral Home specifically outlines the school's requirements that the remains be treated in a 'respectful and organized manner.' It appears that this was not the case in this instance."

The state's investigation of the funeral business took two days. On the second day, an employee of the Prince George's County Health Department was present.

The state's findings also indicated that identification of the bodies was lax. The investigator found that some identification tags were no longer attached to the body bags and "were loose in the pile." The identification tags were found to be torn or wet, "causing the tags to become detached from the body bags and/or illegible."

The investigation quoted a co-owner of the funeral business, Thomas Chambers, about the issue of identification. Thomas Chambers said the identifications could be made "by the process of elimination."

Coincidentally, O'Malley signed into law on Tuesday a sweeping reform of how the state's 28 crematories are regulated. The bill, sponsored by Del. Wade A. Kach, a Baltimore County Republican, passed unanimously in both chambers. Similar bills had failed at least five times in the past 10 years.

A legislative analysis noted that "cremation is minimally regulated in Maryland," saying that the most stringent regulations were emissions standards. Only crematories that perform funeral services are subjected to more regulation, the analysis says. That will change under the new law, which requires the Office of Cemetery Oversight and Board of Morticians to "establish a process for regulating crematories."

That process is to provide for registration, permitting and licensing. The law takes effect Oct. 1 and gives the oversight groups one year to develop and implement regulations.

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.