Headstone havoc

A few tricks, few treats: The burial business isn't for the faint of heart.

IF DEATH IS one of life's sure bets, funerals and burials can be a roll of the dice, as the family of the late Frank Cinotto, 94, found out last April. Shortly after Cinotto's death, a SeaTac area funeral home and cemetery told his family that Cinotto's prepaid funeral insurance account, totaling $1,730, would not pay all costs. The family

decided to bury Cinotto at the SeaTac cemetery, but chose another home to handle the funeral and would pay the difference.

But as friends and relatives gathered for Cinotto's services, a representative from the cemetery arrived at the graveside five minutes before the eulogy was to begin. The family had been unable to sign burial papers previously, and he insisted one of the bereaved sign them now.

Not inclined to read legal documents over her father's grave, daughter Carolyn Russell of Sumner told the man no. "He kept insisting," she says. "Finally, I got angry and said, 'Stop talking and leave us!' Which he did.

"But he didn't tell me that if I didn't sign they wouldn't bury dad."

As mourners began to depart, Russell says she saw grave diggers hovering around the casket and assumed her father was buried that day, next to the grave of his late wife.

But "I learned later they took dad's body back to a holding room," she recalled last week. The next day, Russell and family returned to the Washington Memorial Park funeral home run by Bonney-Watson, signed the undertaker's papers, and Frank Cinotto was at last put to rest.

"It was very painful," Russell says. "I hope others don't have to go through it."

Others do, to various degrees and with little recourse in Washington state. The public agency in charge of such complaints, the small state Funeral and Cemetery Office (FCO) in the Department of Licensing, can't do a whole lot for people such as Russell.

Disputes over funeral costs head the complaint list, but "We don't regulate prices," says FCO administrative assistant Karl Davidson, "so we can't take any action on those complaints."

Besides questionable wheeling-dealings, the office also hears of the occasional mishandling of bodies and burial sites. A few examples from the past 18 months:

* A 78-year-old Port Angeles man, who suffered from pre-dementia memory loss and already had a paid funeral plan, was sold $8,000 in funeral services, which he couldn't remember buying; the contract included a $1,295 casket burial vault (a cheaper grave liner will suffice) and $450 for "extras." The money was returned to the family.

* The daughter of a 79-year-old Tacoma woman said a local funeral director had promised he'd "handle my mother with dignity." Then she watched in shock as the overweight director draped the 120-pound woman's body in a sheet at her home, struggled with her body across the room with the sheet falling off, bumped into a glass door, and staggered outside with the woman's arms dangling to the ground. The director later apologized.

* Residents of the Goldendale area complained that conditions at the local IOOF Mt. View Cemetery had become intolerable: Tomb stones were left toppled or broken, graves were sinking, maintenance seemed nonexistent, and part of the cemetery was occupied by junked travel trailers and an abandoned car. A cleanup effort is being made.

"Cemetery laws, in particular, were for the most part written 50 years ago and not with consumer protection in mind," says Davidson. "We take action where we can."

Of the 54 complaints filed with the FCO from 1999 through July 2000, many were left unsettled due to lack of sufficient evidence. That was the fate of the Cinotto case, as well. "It came down to my word against theirs," says Russell.

BONNEY-WATSON, in operation since 1868, disputes Russell's version, insisting it acted properly and followed the law. In a statement, general manager Cameron Smock says the funeral home was unable to get the family to sign papers earlier and proper authorization prior to burial is an absolute. "As a result, we had no alternative but to delay the burial until [Russell's] authorization was received."

FCO director Dennis McPhee says his investigation couldn't resolve the issue either way. "We do understand the range of emotions brought on by the death of a family member," he says. "However, there is not enough evidence to warrant a disciplinary action against Bonney-Watson-Washington Memorial at this time."

Requiring a signature prior to burial—even apparently when requested at graveside—"is a common practice," he adds, "and an acceptable standard of practice within the cemetery profession."

As for "rudeness, bad behavior, bad manners," says assistant Davidson, "we can't do anything about one instance of it. But if there's a pattern, we can take action." (No such pattern has been shown by Bonney-Watson.)

The FCO, which also oversees the state Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, feels that industry misconduct is rare. It has handed down only three disciplinary actions in the past year and a half: In 1999, Herman Visser, a Minnesota funeral director operating in Washington, was found to have misused prearrangement trust funds and cemetery lot funds totaling $58,000 and was fined $7,500 and ordered to pay back the shortages; this year, James Vince Larkin, a Seattle funeral director, was fined $1,000 for mishandling cremated remains; and Russell Edwards, also a Seattle funeral director, was fined $1,000 for improper handling of funeral documents.

Frequently, complaints swirl around whether or not a prearranged, prepurchased funeral plan was guaranteed, locking in prices. Understandably, says Davidson, "people are surprised to learn the [non-guaranteed] contract their parents may have signed years ago didn't cover the higher costs today."

A funeral price tag can easily top $5,000 or considerably more when an undertaker begins pushing burial vaults and designer caskets, though consumers seem to be resisting the pitch: Echoing a national trend, nearly 55 percent of the dead are cremated rather than planted in Washington, compared to 28 percent in 1980, says the FCO.

However you go, the dead can usually expect a decent send-off by Washington morticians, claims the FCO. "Oh yes, compared to most states, we have a good handle on things here," says Davidson, pun not intended. "In California, there are cases of bodies being dug up and the plot resold to someone else, or multiple cremations at one time. We just don't get that here."

His best funeral-buyer's advice? Comparison shop. "Prices vary widely from one funeral home to the next," he says, sometimes by thousands of dollars. He urges consumers feeling aggrieved to file a complaint with FCO (360-664-1555).

Carolyn Russell has a tip, too. "Life's a slender thread," she says. "I advise people to have those [prearrangement] papers on hand; make sure they're in a safe place. Know what to expect and what's being paid for. You don't want to learn about it in a cemetery, believe me."

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