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    Error precludes family's farewell

    A funeral home cremates a woman's body before the viewing, angering the family as well as county officials.

    [Times photo: Jill Sagers]
    Quintella McNair holds a photo of her mother, Marie McNair, whose ashes are in a nearby urn.

    By DEBORAH O'NEIL

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published August 19, 2001


    DUNEDIN -- Marie McNair's family barely had time to say goodbye. Less than three months after learning she had liver cancer, the 49-year-old mother of two was dead.

    Now, because of a ghastly error last month by the Dunedin funeral home that handled her arrangements -- a funeral home hired by Pinellas County's government -- there may never be closure for her family.

    Rather than embalming and preparing McNair's body for a scheduled viewing and funeral, Abbey Parklawn Funeral Home mistakenly cremated her. The mishandling of McNair's remains is so grievous, the county's top administrator said Friday, the county may yank its $175,000-per-year contract with Abbey Parklawn to bury poor people and unclaimed bodies.

    The McNair fiasco was just one of several problems revealed in interviews and a review of county records. Last week, a Largo woman sued the funeral home, claiming workers there mishandled and neglected her husband's remains. Both the McNair family and another family that was a client of the county's say they intend to sue as well. Clearwater attorney Tom Carey, who is representing all three families, said the problems warrant the county's immediate attention.

    "I'd like to see the county suspend the contract immediately and conduct a full investigation," Carey said. "They need to do something right away."

    The managers at Abbey Parklawn said except for the McNair family's problem, for which they accept responsibility, other complaints have been unfounded. Jeannie Walsh, who operates the funeral home with her husband, said she is frustrated by the criticism. The funeral home is committed to helping people who have nowhere else to turn.

    "I wish people could see all the good we do for people," Walsh said. "We have served so many people at the most desperate time in their life. They don't have anything. They come to us and we take care of them. Their checkbooks don't matter to us."

    McNair's daughter, Quintella McNair, learned what had happened four days after her mother's July 9 death. Family members were coming from New York for the funeral. Quintella, who had moved her mother to Clearwater when she learned of the illness, needed to say goodbye.

    But because of the early cremation, they never got the chance.

    "There is nothing humanly possible that can make this right," McNair said Friday, her voice cracking. "There's nothing that can replace me and my family seeing my mother for the last time."

    Quintella McNair, a single mother of two boys who works full time and earns less than $20,000 a year, had sought assistance with her mother's funeral from Pinellas County's indigent burial program. Marie McNair was receiving Social Security when she died and had no savings or life insurance, according to county records.

    The county agreed to pay for a viewing and service followed by a cremation at Abbey Parklawn, which handles about 450 burials and cremations for the county annually.

    The managers at Abbey Parklawn say they were horrified when they realized the mistake. An employee saw that McNair was to be cremated, but failed to notice that the family had requested a viewing, Walsh said.

    "My secretary just made a mistake," Walsh said. "We felt horrible about it."

    County commissioners renewed the county's contract with Abbey Parklawn in May. Before the vote, county officials sat down with the Walshes because a commissioner had heard someone at the funeral home was rude to a county client, said Evelyn Bethell, director of county social services.

    At that May meeting, county officials were "stern in saying if we hear more complaints about somebody being rude, we might have to cancel," Bethell said.

    On Friday, Interim County Administrator Gay Lancaster said Abbey Parklawn may have run out of chances this time. She said commissioners are going "to hate" what has happened with McNair.

    "It's not acceptable to have these kinds of things happen," Lancaster said when she learned of the incident from a reporter. "For my part, I'd have to say we've reached the threshold, and we'll be looking to other means to provide our services."

    * * *

    There have been other isolated problems at Abbey Parklawn, county officials said.

    Once, a former employee of the funeral home approached the county with a negative report about the funeral home's practices. His allegations were never proved true, said Judith Anderson, who supervises the indigent burial program for the county.

    The county has gotten complaints from Abbey Parklawn's clients, too.

    Darlene Keating's 33-year-old husband, Edward F. Keating Jr., died unexpectedly on Oct. 23, 1999. He suffered from diabetes and wasn't working at the time. Mrs. Keating was working but couldn't afford a funeral service. She turned to the county for help and found herself at Abbey Parklawn.

    The Clearwater mother of three said many aspects of Abbey Parklawn's care left lingering uneasiness. She said she reported her concerns to the county at the time.

    For instance, Mrs. Keating said, when she went to see her husband at the funeral home, she couldn't walk into the room where he was kept because it smelled too bad. During his closed casket funeral in the Abbey Parklawn chapel, she said the smell was awful and fluid was leaking out of the casket. Her 8-year-old son and her mother noticed it, she said.

    "My grandson was hugging onto me and he said, "There's some stuff dripping. What's that from? Is dadda drooling?' " said Arlene Vidette, Mrs. Keating's mother.

    "I was in shock," Mrs. Keating said. "I was thinking about getting my sons out of there."

    The Walshes say no such thing happened. Funeral Director Michael Walsh said for his own safety, he always takes precautions when it comes to fluids.

    "If there had been something dripping from the casket during the service, someone would have mentioned it," Mr. Walsh said. "I guarantee he was placed in several layers of plastic because of the condition he was in. He was also placed in a body bag."

    When Keating heard about the lawsuit filed against the funeral home last week, she asked the county for a copy of her complaint. She was frustrated to learn there were no records of it. Mrs. Keating is considering a filing a lawsuit against the funeral home.

    "I understand it's a free service," she said. "But after so many complaints why do you still do business with them?"

    In November, St. Petersburg resident Chris Huneke used the county's services to bury her mother, Aline Johnson. She said the funeral home never said her mother would be buried in a plot with another person, a common practice in which caskets are stacked in separate vaults one on top of the other.

    Had Abbey Parklawn told her, Huneke said she would have purchased the other burial site for herself rather than have her mother buried on top of a stranger.

    "I wouldn't have allowed it," Huneke said. "This is ungodly."

    Mrs. Walsh said Huneke was told of her mother's burial arrangement, which she said is similar to a mausoleum, except underground. About 20 percent of their burials are done like that, she said, to conserve land on the 13-acre site.

    "She was told," Walsh said. "She was taken out there and shown the space."

    In December 1999, two county workers made an unannounced visit to the National Cemetery in Bushnell where four county veterans were being buried in proceedings arranged by Abbey Parklawn. According to their report, the lid on one of the caskets would not close. The man driving the transport truck for Abbey Parklawn tried to push it shut.

    "When that did not work, he sat on the casket lid," the report states. "He then stood up and opened the lid all the way and pushed the body attempting to adjust it enough to get the lid closed. When this did not appear to work and he still could not close the lid, he sat on it again."

    The cemetery refused to accept the body. Later, the county sent Abbey Parklawn a harsh letter indicating the funeral home would be given a chance to put measures in place to prevent it from happening again.

    "Thereafter, any material breach of this contract will result in immediate termination," county attorney Carl Brody wrote in January 2000.

    Walsh said she recalls that soon after she took over management of the home, a man needed an oversized casket but the county would not approve the expense. Such things no longer happen, she said.

    Other complaints have come from Abbey Parklawn's customers who are not involved with the county program. The Florida Comptroller's Office has two complaints from 1999 about Abbey Parklawn on file. One involved a billing dispute. Another was from an Ohio man who was upset that it took three weeks for him to receive his brother's cremated remains.

    Overall, however, the state has heard little dissatisfaction when it comes to Abbey Parklawn. Tom Spock, a supervisor in the state's Tampa office, said he inspected the funeral home in January.

    "It was nothing unusual," Spock said. "It was mowed and trimmed as the statute says it should be."

    The state has heard plenty when it comes to other funeral homes owned by Willard Timmer, the man who owns Abbey Parklawn and Jeannie Walsh's father. In Florida and Illinois he was investigated for mistreating bodies, burying them in the wrong locations and allowing cemeteries to fall apart.

    Last year, Florida officials refused to renew Timmer's license and placed his Daytona Beach cemetery under the control of a court appointed manager. The actions had no effect on Abbey Parklawn, but Mrs. Walsh said she feels her funeral home is unfairly scrutinized because of what happened at the other facilities.

    "That's very frustrating," she said. "We don't do those things here. I can't even associate myself with that despicable situation."

    * * *

    Burying poor people and unclaimed bodies is a difficult task. The state has said that counties must pay for such burials.

    In Pinellas, county clients are buried in the southwest corner of Abbey Parklawn's cemetery at the corner of Belcher Road and Solon Avenue. Some grave sites have no markers on them. Others have temporary markers provided by Abbey Parklawn. Except for the missing markers, the area doesn't look much different than the rest of the grounds.

    Walsh said she and her husband are lucky if they break even with the county's contract. The current contract calls for Abbey Parklawn to make no more than $175,000 annually, which averages less than $400 for each county client. She estimates the retail value of the burial provided for each county resident ranges from $4,000 to $5,000.

    "Yeah, $175,000 is a lot of money, but I don't see it," she said.

    The point, Mrs. Walsh said, is that her business doesn't do it for the money.

    "It's not all about the money," she said. "It's about taking care of people. That's my fulfillment at night."

    Three years ago, Abbey Parklawn was the only funeral home to bid on the county's contract to provide services for the poor. Lancaster, the county administrator, said that's probably because the funeral homes don't need the business and don't want to accept what the county pays.

    Lancaster says the county will probably have to pay more if they switch funeral homes. But times are tight. Already, the county has said it will have to increase property taxes to pay for new voting equipment.

    "If we need to stop doing business with them," she said, "the next question I have is: Who can we go to to do business with us?"

    -- Times reporter Deborah O'Neil can be reached at 445-4159 or at deborah@sptimes.com.

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