Penrose Funeral Home Scandal Hits Home; Sparks Bombardment of New Laws

Teller County Coroner Seeks Better Enforcement of Current Regulations

Trevor Phipps

The state of Colorado was struck last fall with horror, following the news that nearly 200 dead bodies were found improperly stored inside an office building in Penrose, the “Return to Nature Funeral Home,” near Canon City.

As the case has unfolded, state lawmakers have shuffled to come up with a spree of legislation that could help prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.

However, Teller County’s head coroner and dead body investigator, Stephen Tomsky, argues that this type of action isn’t the answer in preventing another funeral home disaster. Tomsky, who actually assisted some of the families impacted by the recent tragedy, contends that better enforcement of current regulations is the solution, rather than bombarding the state with new legislation.

Regardless, the recent explosion of bills related to this issue is a reality that can’t be ignored.

Since this year’s legislative session started, three bills have gone forward related to funeral home regulations. Two of them deal with how often inspections of funeral home and cremation facilities should be conducted.

The third bill introduced this year, Senate Bill 24-173, called “Regulate Mortuary Science Occupations,” deals with the requirements to legally operate a funeral home business. If passed, the bill would put in place much stricter requirements for those working in the industry by requiring them to graduate from mortuary school, pass the national board examination and complete an apprenticeship for a year.

After the incident in Penrose, this bill (and the two others) has received much media attention. Reports circulated that Colorado had looser laws regarding the mortuary industry than other states.  Recently, SB 24-173 was passed in the state Senate and introduced to the state House of Representatives’ Business Affairs and Labor Committee.

Coroner Speaks Out on Return to Nature Disaster

 However, not all dead body investigators, and experts in this field, are on board with the drive to pass new laws.
In an interview with TMJ, Tomsky, the Teller County coroner and owner of the Mountain Memorial Funeral Home in Divide, maintains that the suspects, Jon and Carie Hallford, who face hundreds of serious charges and recently landed in jail again in El Paso County, were “bad business operators” and “bad actors.”  Tomsky said that there are rules in place to prevent incidents, like what happened in Penrose from occurring. In fact, Tomsky says the rules were not followed by the funeral home operators, even though they had proper licenses and training.

Tomsky who has been a certified funeral director for 40 years and owned Mountain Memorial for 17 years, said that adding more regulations is not always the best solution. “Everybody jumps to conclusions right away,” Tomsky said. “If you are running a good establishment and you are doing things the right way, there are rules in place through the state’s DORA (Department of Regulatory Agencies) and there are rules in place through vital statistics. So, we do have rules. It’s not that we need more rules, we just have to make sure that people are following the rules.”


He said that SB 24-173 has good intentions by providing more requirements for those in the mortuary business. But he fears that making it harder to get licensed for mortuary work could cause issues within the industry. “We do need higher education standards for the people getting involved in the business, but unfortunately there isn’t much money in the funeral business anymore because most people get cremated,” the coroner said. “And it’s hard to find people to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week for $15 an hour. So now you are going to make someone go to school for about $30,000 for a funeral school and you could make more at Walmart.

He said that one solution to prevent future incidents, such as the one that happened at the Return to Nature Funeral Home, has to do with better enforcement of the regulations and tracking the required paperwork. According to Tomsky, when a funeral home company takes a body to get cremated, they are supposed to get the paperwork signed and send it back to the state regulatory agency.


But in the Penrose case, this last step didn’t happen, noted the Teller coroner. The operators took people’s money for a cremation and never followed through with the process. If the state would have made sure that they received all of the paperwork back from the bodies the funeral home took to cremate, the incident wouldn’t have occurred.


Tomsky did say though, that the bills requiring regular inspections were good ideas. “Inspections are good because you want to make sure things are done properly,” Tomsky said.


Tomsky said that after being in business locally for nearly two decades, he operates his company by the books and strictly adheres to all policies. He now has the capabilities to do cremations on his business’s property in Divide and he makes sure he returns the required paperwork to the state.


But after the Penrose incident received so much attention from press across the country, state authorities are now more aware that current regulations need to be more strictly enforced. However, those in the industry hope that the regulations to get in the funeral business won’t be increased to the point where nobody is able to get licensed and qualified employees become even scarcer.