Iowa County Officials Deny Man Right to Bury His Father Privately

UPDATE — Within minutes of sending our open letter (see below), Polk County attorney Micheal O’Meara responded:

Mr. Slocum,

The Office of the Polk County Attorney stands by the legal counsel it provided to the Office of the Polk County Recorder and the Office of the Polk County Medical Examiner, as independent legal officials under the laws of the State, in the situation you reference.  We will engage in no further communication with you in this regard.

Why, thank you for your kind attention and thorough attention, Mr. O’Meara.


2/26/2010 — The Polk County attorney’s office denied a local man the right to a burial permit he needed to bury his own father without using a commercial funeral home. This appears to us to be a bureaucratic snafu, based on misinterpretation of Iowa laws and regulations. Whatever the reason, a grieving son who’d prepared for his elderly father’s death and wanted to keep in it the family was forced to relinquish his father to a commercial funeral home (though the funeral home kindly helped Mr. Sindric for free). According to the Indianola Record-Herald:

An Indianola man says state officials committed a grave injustice when they denied him a permit to transport his dead father’s body to the cemetery.Richard Harold Sindric, 55, could not convince anyone to issue him a burial transit permit that would have allowed him to move the body of his father, Richard Nicholas Sindric, who died at Taylor House hospice in Des Moines on Feb. 3.

. . . .

The younger Sindric had planned his father’s burial arrangements for months. He built a coffin and hoped to transport his father’s body to the Iowa Veterans Cemetery in Van Meter. His goal was to avoid any and all involvement by funeral directors, whom he believes have an unfair monopoly over the burial industry.
“It seems like you should be able to perform simple services like moving a body without paying someone,” Sindric said. “And I’d like to get through to (state officials) that this was the intent of the law.”

Funeral Consumers Alliance has published an open letter to Iowa officials, with a copy sent directly to Polk County Attorney Michael O’Meara. Click READ  MORE for the text of the letter.

February 24, 2010

Open Letter to Iowa State Officials
Regarding the Right of Citizens to Custody and Burial of Their Own Dead

As the executive director the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization guarding the rights of grieving families, I was dismayed to read of the treatment of Indianola citizen Richard Sindric. Mr. Sindric, as reported in the Record-Herald February 17, 2010, had planned to quietly and respectfully bury his father, Richard Nicholas Sindric, only to be denied his legal rights by the Polk County Recorder’s Office and the Polk County Attorney’s Office. According to the Record-Herald, first assistant county attorney Michael O’Meara recommended that that County Recorder deny Mr. Sindric the burial-transit permit he needed to legally bury his father. As a result, Mr. Sindric was forced to use a commercial funeral home—which he had been expressly trying to avoid. While the Recorder’s office and county attorney O’Meara were doubtless trying to ensure the law was followed, their conclusions are at odds with Iowa laws and regulations.

Inadvertently, this caused Mr. Sindric unnecessary hardship and sorrow during what should have been a very private time for his family. In my years at Funeral Consumers Alliance, I have never seen an instance where a state or county attorney instructed a local official to deny a burial permit to a person legally entitled to receive it. And make no mistake, citizens such as Mr. Sindric are expressly entitled to legally bury their own dead under Iowa law.

Just more than 100 years ago, most American families would be familiar with burying their own dead. Commercial funeral homes only became predominant in the late 19th century. But in just a few generations, we have become so removed from involvement in the deaths of our family members that most people mistakenly believe they are legally required to hire a funeral home. But there’s a growing interest among many families in returning to a more family-centered, family-controlled funeral ritual. More than 50 individuals and volunteer groups nationwide have sprung up in the past 10 years to help guide families through home funerals. As the co-author of a forthcoming book on funeral and burial law state by state, I can relate that 44 out of 50 states preserve families’ rights to bury their  own dead, including Iowa.

Legal Misinterpretations in the Sindric Case

Polk County assistant attorney Michael O’Meara was quoted in the Herald-Record saying “There was a genuine concern as to whether [Richard Sindric] would be able to fulfill his obligation to have the body buried within 24 hours.” This “concern,” presumably, was what led Mr. O’Meara to recommend that the Polk County Recorder deny Mr. Sindric the burial permit. I can’t help but wonder why it isn’t obvious that the time spent by O’Meara’s office deciding whether Mr. Sindric could get his permit contributed to the ticking clock. But more importantly, Richard Sindric had no obligation to bury his father’s body within 24 hours. The time period requirements apply to commercial funeral directors only, not to private families. In addition, Iowa law specifically exempts private citizens from the licensure requirements imposed on commercial funeral establishments:

Iowa Code 156.2  Persons excluded.
Section 156.1 shall not be construed to include the following classes of persons:
. . .
4.  Persons who, without compensation, bury their own dead under a burial transit permit secured pursuant to section 144.32.

Polk County attorney Michael O’Meara told the Herald-Record that Mr. Sindric was legally obligated to bury his father’s body within 24 hours. I can find no legal support for this. The only reference to the time frame in which bodies must be buried appears in the Iowa Administrative Code section titled Practice of Funeral Directors, Funeral Establishments, and Cremation Establishments. The section defines a funeral directors as “a person licensed by the board to practice mortuary science,” and defines a funeral establishment as “a place of business as defined by the board devoted to providing any aspect of mortuary science.” The intent behind this section is clearly to govern commercial businesses that sell funerals to the public. This section has no authority over private families who conduct their own burials.  

The Iowa Admininistrative Code section regarding the burial time-frame says this:

645-100.6(4) Care of the unembalmed human remains.
a. When death is not attributed to a reportable communicable disease, embalming may be omitted provided that interment or cremation is performed within 48 hours after death or within 24 hours of taking custody if the human remains were previously in the custody of others, whichever is longer.

The wording makes it clear this section is meant to apply to the actions of funeral directors who take custody of a body from another party. It is worth noting that Iowa is one of the minority of states that do not allow refrigeration as an alternative to embalming. Despite widespread misconceptions spread by the funeral industry, dead bodies do not pose a public health risk. Most other states either do not require embalming under any circumstances, or they permit refrigeration as an alternative for those who object to the invasive and unnecessary procedure.

There is no doubt that all state officials involved in this unfortunate case were trying to do their best to ensure the law was carried out properly. Nevertheless, they erred, and Mr. Sindric suffered an injustice. Even if the law required what attorney O’Meara believed, this would appear to be a case where bureaucratic zeal overruled common sense and compassion. Because Mr. Sindric’s desire to bury his father was seen as highly unusual, people of good will made decisions that served no rational purpose, did nothing to protect public welfare, and denied a son his legal right to perform a loving, final duty to his father.

This must not happen to another Iowa family. On behalf of Funeral Consumers Alliance, I ask Iowa state officials to re-evaluate their stance on family-directed funerals, and to publicly commit to upholding the rights of grieving families to carry out this final act of love.

Respectfully,

Joshua Slocum
Executive Director

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