LANSING – A Flint funeral home that offers cut-rate cremations to Lansing residents faces disciplinary action after a state inspector found decomposing bodies — apparently stored over the summer — in the funeral home’s garage.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's office lodged four complaints against Swanson Funeral Home of Flint in September for gross negligence, incompetence, violation of a rule of conduct and an inability to serve the public.
The complaints were filed with the state Board of Mortuary Science on behalf of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. The action was triggered by a Leslie funeral director who visited the home last year to pick up a body and was appalled by what he found. He filed a complaint with the state after that visit.
“The place just reeked to death. It smelled like decomposition,” said Darin Vickers, manager and director of Leslie-Springport Funeral Homes. “I’m a country kid and a funeral director. I’m used to bad smells. That place was disgusting.”
Vickers said he was there to retrieve an embalmed body after family members changed their minds about using Swanson and asked Vickers to take over the services.
The owner of the Flint funeral home, O’Neil Swanson II, said he’s done nothing wrong or illegal. He said he’s offering very affordable, needed services to families in Lansing.
“There are allegations made and they’re unfounded,” he said in a phone interview this week. He has hired former Attorney General Mike Cox to represent him.
Stained cremation containers
Vickers spotted, and photographed, fluids leaking from cardboard cremation containers that were stacked in the garage. He also reported that he found blood and fluids covering the basement preparation room and stained casket pillows where bodies had apparently leaked onto them in a hallway.
In addition, he said fly strips were used in the hall behind the chapel, indicating a presence of flies inside the funeral home.
After Vickers filed the complaint in September 2015, a state investigator inspected the home in December. According to the written complaint, the inspector verified that “several unrefrigerated human remains” were stored in the garage and had been there since at least May 2015.
Swanson disputed the term "several." He said there were two bodies, one embalmed and one not embalmed, in the garage.
The bodies had been returned unexpectedly from the crematorium, he said, after he was unable to find family members needed to approve the cremations.
They’ve since been taken care of; Swanson said he worked with court appointees assigned to people with no next of kin.
I wrote about Swanson in August after some members of Ron Geller Sr.’s family in Lansing were upset at the lack of information about the cremation handled by the funeral home. They didn’t get the remains until after the party they had planned around the ashes, and they didn't understand they were dealing with a Flint funeral home.
Another financial dispute last year with a family resulted in the remains of a Vietnam vet from Lansing sitting for weeks before cremation.
Though the funeral home is located in Flint, employees pick up bodies in the Lansing area, take them directly to an Ypsilanti crematorium or back to Flint for embalming for those choosing to show the body prior to the cremation, Swanson explained to the LSJ earlier this year. The ashes are delivered to the doorstep of loved ones. Swanson said he works with The Bread House South church in Lansing for those wishing for local services.
Michael Loepp, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, said in an email it’s not known how long the case will take. It depends on whether Swanson admits to the violations or asks for a hearing before an administrative law judge. The nine-member Board of Mortuary Science, appointed by the governor, decides sanctions, which can include fines and revocation of the license. It doesn't meet until next April.
Loepp also said that funeral home inspections are done at the initial licensing, in this case 1994, and then in response to complaints.
When asked why the case took so long to file after the December inspection, Loepp said that he couldn't comment on an ongoing case. In general, he cited gathering documentation, interviewing witnesses, writing investigative reports, in some cases, asking experts in the field to review.
"It is not unusual for the entire process to take approximately one year," he said in an email.
It's not the first time Swanson has faced licensing challenges.
The funeral home and Swanson were fined $10,000 in 2014 for forging signatures on four death certificates in Ingham County. Swanson said it was the work of a former employee, who denied the charge, according to state records.
The funeral home was also fined $10,000 in 2004 for “inconsistent statement of fees owed for services and its collection of fees.”
Vickers, the Leslie funeral director, said unclaimed bodies should be reported to a medical examiner and authorization sought to cremate them. And they should be in cold storage, not stacked in a garage.
He said he competes only slightly with Swanson, which advertises cremation as low as $495. Vickers, in comparison, charges $2,295 for a basic cremation.
Vickers said he’s never filed another complaint in 15 years of working in his profession but the funeral home conditions shook him.
“No matter how somebody passed, no matter what the financial situation was like, they’re still somebody’s someone and they should be treated with dignity,” he said.
I appreciate the values of those who want to reject expensive, showy services so that their surviving loved ones can use the money on other priorities.
But in this case you might just be getting what you pay for.