Gone and forgotten

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An inspection prompted by an anonymous tip led to the discovery of decomposing bodies in this West Philly funeral home. Blair Hawkins (inset), funeral director, has been arrested.

Humans have carefully and respectfully buried their dead since the Paleolithic period, even providing tools for use in the afterlife. Today the proper treatment of corpses for health and religious reasons remains important to almost every culture across the globe.

Three Philadelphia funeral directors appear to be a disturbing exception. Investigators allege that they stored corpses in a garage or otherwise inappropriate and unsanitary circumstances. The conditions of the bodies discovered were worse than most of us could or would care to imagine.

It's unfortunate that a judge last week refused to grant state officials a temporary injunction that would have put the implicated funeral directors out of a business that relies on compassion and credibility. Their alleged negligence showed neither.

But the state Board of Funeral Directors should not be dissuaded from acting. Commonwealth Court Senior Judge James Gardner Colins ruled that it's up to the board to decide the future of the undertakers, and the board should move to do so quickly.

In its complaints against the directors, the Pennsylvania Department of State describes a depraved disregard for public health and decency. One home stored bodies in a rickety garage near homes in Strawberry Mansion. Police said they quickly snapped photographs of the makeshift mausoleum for fear that the roof would collapse on the evidence. In another case, investigators acting on a tip found rotting corpses and bags of organs at a West Philadelphia funeral home. The operator's excuse - that the bodies were left unrefrigerated because relatives hadn't signed off on cremations - stretches credulity.

Families and friends reasonably expect that funeral homes will treat their loved ones' bodies with respect and care, but there are serious questions about whether the funeral board is up to the task of ensuring that. While officials did act swiftly against the Philadelphia homes following reports of wrongdoing, the board lacks adequate staff and procedures.

The state employs only one funeral home inspector for a region that includes Philadelphia and Bucks, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties' 349 funeral homes. There are only four inspectors for the 1,629 homes statewide.

Even when a funeral home's license is revoked, the only public notice is through legal advertisements in newspapers and obscure notations on the board's website. Funeral directors should be required to show anyone who purchases their services that they're in good standing, and they certainly shouldn't be allowed to continue operating without current licensing, as two of the accused Philadelphia directors were.

The Board of Funeral Directors is seeking "the ability to levy immediate temporary suspensions" and supplement its staff. Gov. Wolf and the legislature should give it the tools it needs to ensure the healthy and respectful delivery of a service that all of us will eventually require.