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Colorado Governor signs bills to regulate funeral home industry and prevent further tragedies

DENVER, Colo. (KRDO) - Colorado is the last state in the country to regulate the funeral home industry after Governor Jared Polis signed three bills into law Friday.

The morning began on a somber note as Polis asked for a moment of silence for the victims and families of multiple funeral home tragedies.

“Too many Colorado families have faced the unthinkable and not knowing what happened to the earthly remains of their loved ones after having paid for services that they never received,” Polis said. “It's time to professionalize the funeral industry in Colorado, which is exactly what these three bills do.”

The industry first came under fire after the owners of Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose, Colorado, were found to have mutilated and sold about 800 bodies from 2010 to 2018. Five years later, nearly 200 decomposing bodies were found inside the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Colorado. Most recently, a woman’s body and at least 30 cremated remains were found at a Denver funeral director’s personal residence.

“There are no words that could heal the pain that so many families have endured,” said Patty Salazar, the executive director for the Department of Regulator Agencies. “While we cannot change what happened, I'm confident that we can mitigate further unnecessary trauma and pain with this legislation.”

The first bill the Governor signed regulates funeral home professionals. Colorado was the only state in the country that didn’t license industry employees after state lawmakers decided to deregulate more than 40 years ago.

Senate Bill 24-173 required funeral home professionals to obtain a license. To do so, a person has to complete a background check, graduate from an approved mortuary science school, pass the national board examination, and serve an apprenticeship.

State officials said there was a necessary balance between regulating the industry without overburdening reputable professionals. Those currently in the industry are able to obtain a provisional license which requires 4,000 hours of work experience and at least one year in the industry. Those licenses only last for three years but it allows professionals to meet the state’s requirements for a full license while still being able to work.

“The vast majority of the time, businesses and professionals are going to do the right thing,” Salazar said. “They're going to want to follow the law. They're going to want to make sure that the services are provided with quality and integrity. There's unfortunately always going to be intentional harm, which is what we focus on mitigating.”

This is what House Bill 24-1335 hopes to do. It gives the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) more oversight of the funeral home industry. Previously, DORA could only inspect funeral home facilities during business hours, but the new law allows officials to inspect at any time, including during the application process and even after funeral homes close. It also adds accountability measures against DORA, including allowing grounds for discipline for “failure to respond to a complaint within an appropriate amount of time.”

The third bill signed Friday, House Bill 24-1254, was in response to the Sunset Mesa tragedy and further regulates non-transplant tissue banks, prohibiting a funeral home owner from owning any portion of a body brokering business.

“These bills in the system that are going to be put in place for licensing and more inspections will make Colorado a safer, more professional, and more reputable place for people to take their loved ones to be laid to rest,” said State Democrat Senator Dylan Roberts.

Many families of victims have questioned DORA’s authority and whether it has enough funds or employees to properly regulate and oversee the funeral home industry. Salazar said these bills are cash-funded, meaning the fees from the funeral home license will fund the agency's program.

She told KRDO13 Investigates the bills are expected to go into effect by the end of the year however, there is a months-long rulemaking process before that can happen. Salazar said the state will meet with many stakeholders, including industry professionals, to determine rules like how often the state should inspect funeral homes and who can do the inspections.

Many families of victims will also be a part of that process, as lawmakers said these three bills wouldn’t have been signed without them. Although Polis began the ceremony reminding everyone of the reason they were there, it ended with joyful cheers as he signed three bills, which families hope will keep everyone from experiencing what they have been through.

“What you've gone through is absolutely terrible and horrendous, should have never happened in the first place,” Roberts said. “But your commitment to make something good out of a terrible situation is commendable.”

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Quinn Ritzdorf

Quinn is a reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about him here.


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