A Colorado funeral home is under investigation for potentially falsifying death certificates and giving fake cremated ashes to its bereaved customers after nearly 200 decaying corpses were found on its grounds.
Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Colorado has been accused by at least four families of giving them fake human remains after a bad smell at the funeral home led to the police discovery of 189 rotting human bodies, almost all of which have yet to be identified according to an article by the Associated Press.
Return to Nature reportedly listed third-party crematoriums on death certificates given back to bereaved family members after paying for funeral services. An Associated Press investigation culminated with the owners of said funeral homes vehemently denying having done any recent business with Return to Nature. The AP said they reviewed four death certificates provided to them by families who had used Return To Nature’s cremation services and found that none of the cremations appear to have actually happened, or at the very least did not happen at the locations provided by Return to Nature.
“My mom’s last wish was for her remains to be scattered in a place she loved, not rotting away in a building,” said Tanya Wilson, who told the Associated Press that she believes the ashes she spread in Hawaii in August were fake. “Any peace that we had, thinking that we honored her wishes, you know, was just completely ripped away from us.”
According to the AP, all the death certificates they reviewed listed a crematorium owed by Wilbert Funeral Services. An attorney for Wilbert Funeral Services, Lisa Epps, said they stopped doing cremations for Return to Nature several months before the deaths listed on the provided death certificates. Epps told the AP that no less than 10 families have contacted them regarding cremations they did not perform. The owner of a second crematorium, Roselawn Funeral Home, also said they were recently contacted by a family regarding a 2021 cremation Roselawn did not perform.
Wilbert Funeral Services reportedly stopped doing business with Return to Nature because of purported financial woes. According to the AP, public records showed Return to Nature was recently the subject of an eviction notice and had records of unpaid taxes. They also recently had to pay a $21,000 settlement to Wilbert Funeral Services because they allegedly did not pay for what Epps described as “a couple hundred cremations.”
The owners of Return to Nature, Jon and Carrie Hallford, have not yet been arrested but have not responded to any of the AP’s requests for comment. A member of one of the four families AP interviewed, all of whom suspect they were given dry concrete instead of human remains, said he confronted Carie Hallford about his concerns when he was originally handed the urn containing what she thought were the ashes of his mother
Jesse Elliott, brother of Tanya Wilson, told the AP that when Carie Hallford handed him particularly heavy ashes, he asked her about it and Hallford said “Jesse, of course this is your mother.” Elliott and Wilson reportedly took the ashes to another funeral home director who told them the ashes looked very strange.
“I’ve never seen anything that looks like that in the range of what cremated remains would typically expect to look like,” said Amber Flickinger from Platt’s Funeral Home to the AP.
Another potential victim of the alleged falsifying of ashes, Michelle Johnston, told the AP she became suspicious after the news broke about all the bodies found at Return to Nature. She closely inspected her husband’s ashes and found, after applying a bit of water to them, that they turned into what she thought was concrete. Properly cremated remains do not behave this way and will remain in a brittle state, according to Faith Haug, chair of the mortuary science program at Colorado’s Arapahoe Community College.
“I was kind of getting to a place where I wasn’t losing it every day,” Johnston said to the AP. “I don’t know where my husband is.”
Charges against the Hallford’s and Return to Nature Funeral Home had not yet been filed at the time of publication but staggering criminal fines and a maximum two-year prison sentence are on the table, according to the AP. Colorado is known for having particularly lax laws regarding funeral services and cremations, and this is actually not the first time that concrete has potentially been substituted for human remains in Colorado. Another Colorado funeral home director was found guilty of selling body parts and fake ashes and received a 20-year prison sentence for mail fraud in January.
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