Cape Breton funeral director cleared of cremation of wrong body

Joe Curry says he's pleased a Nova Scotia Supreme Court justice exonerated him after his funeral director license was revoked in 2021 for cremating the wrong body.  (Tom Ayers/CBC - photo credit)

Joe Curry says he’s pleased a Nova Scotia Supreme Court justice exonerated him after his funeral director license was revoked in 2021 for cremating the wrong body. (Tom Ayers/CBC – photo credit)

A Cape Breton undertaker who lost his license after the wrong body was cremated in December 2021 is getting his license back.

In a written decision, Nova Scotia Superior Court Justice Timothy Gabriel called the case a sad and unfortunate case.

Joe Curry, who was at the Forest Haven Funeral Home in Sydney at the time of the incident, said he was happy with the decision.

The day after receiving the verdict, Curry walked into the funeral home’s office and was immediately greeted enthusiastically by the staff.

“I got my hugs,” he said. “They’re just a good family to me and I’ve enjoyed my time here with them, so I’m still part of that group.”

The judge said a male body was mistakenly handed over to Forest Haven’s delivery service at the hospital when it was supposed to be a female.

Matthew Moore/CBC

Matthew Moore/CBC

In a disciplinary decision that resulted in the loss of Curry’s license, the Nova Scotia Board of Registration for Embalmers and Funeral Directors said Curry and his staff should have checked the body after picking it up at Cape Breton Regional Hospital.

In his ruling, the judge said that because the sexes were different, wrongful cremation might have been prevented in this case, but it wouldn’t always ensure the correct body was cremated if the wrong label was applied at the hospital.

Gabriel said it was “saying” that the board and his attorney “were either unwilling or unable to provide details of the steps required.” [Curry’s] Duty to identify the remains before cremation.

“During the dispute, when the court asked how the applicant could have identified the body, the lawyer simply repeatedly replied that Mr Curry ‘should have done something’.”

The judge said that implied that funeral directors should improvise their own procedures.

Curry said the body-handling regulations are good and just need a little clearer.

“We want to show the public that we’ve seen something here and that we’ve put an i or a cross so it’s a little clearer now,” he said.

“Nothing against that, but… I think a lot of things are being done well and right now.”

Matthew Moore/CBC

Matthew Moore/CBC

The regulations could use some adjustment, Curry said, but he’s not offering anything specific.

That’s because he did everything he was supposed to do after the body was picked up at the hospital, he said.

There have been two instances of wrongful cremation in Nova Scotia in the past five years.

The registry has asked the province for improved training requirements and stricter regulations regarding cremation and body identification and tracking, known as chain of custody.

Accidents can happen

Curry said Nova Scotians should have confidence in the process but says accidents can happen.

“The human is something we cannot control [over] and we cannot legislate the human response,” he said.

“But we can train it so that we avoid some of those things ever happening again.”

Curry, who is 80, said he looks forward to getting his license back and helping people, which he has been doing for decades, having started at his family’s funeral home more than 70 years ago.

“I will likely continue to be involved with people who are experiencing the death of a loved one,” he said.

“I came across this earlier this week. So it will continue to be an attraction for me to be able to react when someone comes to me.”

Gary Mansfield/CBC

Gary Mansfield/CBC

Forest Haven owner Dave Wilton, whose funeral director lost his cremation permit for two months following last year’s investigation, declined to comment and said he was now awaiting legal advice as the Curry decision was made.

CBC News contacted the funeral home registry, but they were unavailable for comment.

The Service Nova Scotia, which oversees funeral home and cremation legislation, said in an email it was reviewing the judge’s decision, and no family should have to go through that kind of mix-up.

Nova Scotia Health declined to comment last year and said it was conducting a quality review after learning the hospital had given away the wrong body.

The health authority said on Thursday that it would not comment on specific cases.



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