Wayne State University warned Perry Funeral Home about improper storage of human remains

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Wayne State University officials advised Perry Funeral Home staff to refrain from piling multiple dead bodies in cooler drawers meant for only one cadaver, and to properly log remains as they entered and left the school's Mortuary Science morgue, according documents obtained by The Detroit News.

Perry Funeral Home is the subject of state and Detroit police investigations for allegedly mishandling remains and falsely claiming to have buried them. Attorneys for plaintiffs in a lawsuit that was granted class-action status earlier this month told a Wayne County judge Perry may have mishandled more than 200 infant and fetal remains.

Perry Funeral Home is the subject of state and Detroit police investigations for allegedly mishandling remains and falsely claiming to have buried them. Attorneys for plaintiffs in a lawsuit that was granted class-action status earlier this month told a Wayne County judge Perry may have mishandled more than 200 infant and fetal remains.

The Perry case is part of a wider investigation into funeral homes statewide, including a state and Detroit police probe of Cantrell Funeral Home in Detroit, which also faces allegations of mishandling remains and fraud.

Perry spokesman Tom Shields said the funeral home complied with Wayne State's edicts about storing remains. Wayne State officials insist they've done nothing wrong, while Cantrell's former owner, Raymond Cantrell Jr., has not returned multiple phone messages.

"In the past three years, Perry has received notices from the Wayne State Mortuary Science Program stating or changing their policies regarding storage of remains at their facilities," Shields said. "In response to each notice, Perry Funeral Home complied with the request and their changes in policy and continued to work with the WSU in a positive and respectful manner."

For more than 50 years, Wayne State allowed Perry to use its cooler to store remains, and in return the funeral home provided cadavers for use by mortuary science students. 

Last year, Wayne State terminated its agreement allowing Perry to store infant and fetal remains in the university's morgue because of space considerations, university officials said. The funeral home continued storing adult remains at the school until Oct. 19, when police raided Perry's facility on Trumbull, removed the bodies of 63 infants and fetuses, and suspended the mortuary licenses of Perry and its director Gary Deak. 

Emails, letters and memos from 2014-18, obtained by The News through the Freedom of Information Act, show Wayne State officials reminded Perry three times to follow protocol for storing cadavers.

"We cannot overlook issues that cause a safety concern or compromise the ethical and dignified handling of remains,” Mark Evely, head of Wayne’s Mortuary Science program, said in an Oct. 5, 2016, memo to Perry and Generations Funeral Home in Farmington Hills, which also stored remains at the school's morgue. Generations is not part of the ongoing investigations, and has not been accused of wrongdoing.

Evely also complained in the memo that bodies were "being doubled on trays and placed on tables in the cooler. This consequently gives rise to a safety issue for our students and faculty."

In a March 4, 2015, letter, Wayne State attorney Sarah A. Luke reminded Perry owner Jim Vermeulen that the agreement for storing remains required the funeral home to "cooperate with the University in the planning and conduct of the (students') clinical experience."

"Unfortunately, it has come to our attention that over the past several months Perry has failed to cooperate with the Mortuary Science Program by delivering decedents to the Cooler at rates which have caused the Cooler to exceed its 58 decedent capacity," Luke wrote. "This practice must cease immediately."

The letter said the University’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety “has cited the Mortuary Science Program based on the overcrowding of the Cooler. The citation notes that the current conditions pose a potential fire and safety hazard and impede the Program's ability to maintain the cooler in accord with the University's Health and Safety standards.

"Moreover, the Michigan Public Health Act requires that ... excess decedents be removed from the Cooler on or before March 17, 2015," Luke wrote. Wayne State officials say Perry complied with that order.

Luke further wrote: “The failure of Perry to properly transport, handle or care for a decedent’s remains constitutes violation of the State of Michigan’s Occupational Health Code. Perry’s failure to comply with the Mortuary Science Cooler’s capacity may also constitute a negligent mishandling of decedent’s remains in violation of Michigan law.”

As a result of the issues, Luke wrote that Wayne State was imposing a 44-decedent limit on how many remains Perry could store in the university's cooler. Failure to adhere to the requirement would result in “revocation of Perry’s current access to the Cooler, and any future access would be allowed only under the supervision of University personnel,” she wrote.

On June 1, 2017, Evely sent a letter to Perry advising: "Under no circumstances may two decedents occupy one tray space in the Mortuary Science Cooler."

Wayne State spokesman Matthew Lockwood said Perry complied with the university's edicts after the letters were sent.

"WSU issued these instructions to Perry to ensure the respectful and ethical handling of remains while in our facility in accordance with professional standards," Lockwood said in an email.  "The March 2015 letter required Perry to remove the excess decedents in the facility by March 17, 2015. Perry complied with the directive and removed the remains by the deadline.

"WSU continued to monitor the status of the refrigeration facility regularly, and when the facility reached overcapacity in 2016, a memorandum was sent to Perry instructing them to remove decedents," Lockwood said. "Perry did remove decedents and complied with the instructions.

"In the June 2017 letter, WSU referenced the capacity policy simply as a reminder — not because there was an overcapacity issue," Lockwood said. "There was no need to revoke Perry’s access to the facility because Perry complied with the March 2015 directive to remove the excess decedents by March 17, 2015."

Lockwood said the university didn't contact the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs because there wasn't a concern that Perry staff was violating state regulations.

"Our concern was not one of regulatory compliance, which might make it appropriate to contact LARA," Lockwood said. "The applicable regulations are silent on this point. Rather, the concern was one of compliance with professional standards."

When asked why Wayne State didn't alert LARA after Luke wrote in her 2015 letter that Perry's handling of remains "constitutes violation of the State of Michigan's Occupational Health Code," Lockwood said: "It was simply a reminder of Perry’s legal obligations. The concern was compliance with professional, not regulatory, standards."

Without commenting on the specific allegations against Perry, LARA spokesman Jason Moon said: "We have no oversight over morgues ... (but) we encourage anyone who believes there may be a violation to contact our office."

Phil Douma, director of the Michigan Funeral Directors Association, said he wasn't aware of the specifics of the Perry case, but added:  "The standards of the profession dictate that funeral directors handle human remains in a dignified and respectful way."

Stephen Kemp, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association and owner of Kemp Funeral Home in Southfield, agreed that storing multiple bodies in coolers meant for only one, and leaving them on tables, "is frowned upon in this business."

"I don't know of any specific statute against the practice, but I don't think it's a good idea," Kemp said. "First of all, you have to use what's known as universal precautions. When you take possession of remains, sometimes you don't know what the cause of death was, so you have to treat them as if they have contagious diseases, so they don't infect the other bodies or people who come in contact with them.

"As far as storage goes, it's just not a good idea to stack bodies on top of each other, out of respect for human remains," Kemp said. "That's just common sense."

On two occasions, in 2014 and 2017, Wayne State officials reminded staff at Perry to make logbook entries recording any remains brought into and taken from the university's cooler. 

Wayne State mortuary science logbook entries by Perry staff are central to lawsuits alleging the funeral home and university mishandled infant and fetal remains.

Attorneys for Rachel Brown in July sued Perry, Wayne State, Harper-Hutzel Hospital and Knollwood Park Cemetery in Canton Township, alleging the remains of her daughter, Alayah Davis, were mishandled after Brown requested the baby's body be donated to the Wayne State medical school for research.

The allegations made in Brown's lawsuit prompted Detroit police last month to launch a criminal investigation into the matter. Detroit police had already initiated an investigation into Cantrell Funeral Home after 10 fetuses and one infant's remains were found hidden in a ceiling compartment during an Oct. 12 raid.

A joint task force involving Detroit police, Michigan State Police, the FBI and LARA was formed to investigate the case. Gov. Rick Snyder also assembled a multi-disciplinary team to investigate funeral homes statewide.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig said the investigation is ongoing.

"The task force is still actively investigating Perry ... and our homicide team is focusing on Cantrell," Craig said. "They're separate investigations, but if we see a connection, we'll combine them into one. Right now they're going down separate tracks ... we're following up on leads and tips we're getting."

Craig said police have identified six of the 11 bodies found in Cantrell.

Brown's attorneys Peter Parks and Daniel Cieslak on Nov. 5 told Judge Sheila Ann Gibson of Wayne County Circuit Court that more than 200 remains of infants and fetuses may have been mishandled by the defendants, based on entries in the Wayne State Mortuary Science logbook.

Parks and Cieslak said they deduced at least 200 infant and fetal remains are involved because of entries in the logbook.

Lockwood said the university was able to track all of the remains while they were housed in Wayne State's cooler.

"Funeral homes delivering remains to the facility were required to log the remains in and, when they were removed, log the remains out," Lockwood said. "The purpose of the log was to allow the program to track the remains." 

Wayne State's part of the Brown lawsuit is being handled by the Michigan Court of Claims, and is not part of the class-action suit, Lockwood said. He said the university has done nothing wrong. "We just had an arrangement with Perry to let them store remains in our cooler," he said. "This is not a university issue."

Parks and Cieslak also alleged during the Nov. 5 hearing that Perry employees filed false death certificates indicating they'd buried Alayah and other infants and fetuses in Knollwood Park Cemetery.

At least two sets of remains that Perry claimed to have buried turned up in a box on Oct. 19, when Detroit police and state officials raided Perry's facility on Trumbull Avenue, Parks told the judge.

A source familiar with the investigation told The Detroit News earlier this month the remains of Alayah Davis and Rasheed Noble, whose parents are also represented by Parks and Cieslak — and who also had a death certificate filed by Perry indicating she'd been buried in Knollwood Park — were among the 63 fetuses found in an unrefrigerated box during the Perry raid.

On Dec. 19, 2016, Perry employees filed at least seven delayed death certificates with the state, indicating they’d buried infant and fetal remains at Knollwood Park. 

Knollwood Park general manager Dennis Herman told The News: "We don't file death certificates, and we never charged anyone for burials we didn't perform."

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