Cremation, Confusion and Solicitation

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Cremation, Confusion and Solicitation

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
When I cremated Sam McGee

— Robert W. Service, The Cremation of Sam Magee

It is enough to give cremations a bad name, especially after an industry publication said in bold letters that: “Cremation is the New Tradition” suggesting a tradition can be created as quickly as, say, instant oatmeal. The new tradition, however, had a bad spring. In March it was reported that a Bronx funeral home inadvertently cremated the wrong corpse and in April a suit was filed against a mortuary in Rochester that cremated someone who had left specific instructions that following his death he did not want to be cremated. Those kinds of mistakes could of course, happen to anyone and should not put the practice in bad odor. Nonetheless, it is unfortunate when that kind of mistake happens, since depending on the nature of the mistake, it can be hard to correct. The Rochester suit is an example of that. Once cremation of the wrong person has taken place, there is nothing the funeral home can do to correct the error. The Bronx case was different.

In the Bronx case the family had an elaborate open casket service at a church in Harlem in which the wrong person had been placed in the casket attired in the decedent’s clothes and jewelry by the funeral home employees. Although some who viewed the decedent before the service were surprised by her appearance, they attributed that to the fact she had had a serious illness and lots of medical treatments that had altered her appearance. (A small child immediately said the person he was viewing was not his grandmother but his observation was ignored.) It was only after the wrong corpse had been cremated that the error was discovered. Since the wrong corpse had been on display, as it were, over 100 people were attending a service at which the corpse of honor was not in attendance. That was the bad news. The good news was that although the wrong corpse had been cremated, it was possible to cremate the proper corpse after the error had been discovered. The director of the funeral home, who is presumably expert in these matters, was shown a photograph of the two women involved and said “Looks like the same woman to me.” He went on to say to the reporter that: “We’re known for our care, compassion, professionalism, the quality of our work.”

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It was nothing more than a coincidence that just as those unfortunate events were being reported I got two almost identical missives a month apart. One came from the National Cremation Society and the other from the Neptune Society. On each envelope was information that might cause those inclined to put such materials in the trash without opening the envelope, to open the envelope. The legend on each envelope that was tantalizing was “Free Pre-Paid Cremation! Details inside.” Like so many beneficiaries of such solicitations, I was sure there was a catch, such as a requirement that I would have to claim my free cremation by a certain date and the offer of a free cremation would expire on that date if I had not. It turned out, upon opening each of the two offers, that the offers were identical and neither offer expired on a certain date. On the other hand, neither contained the promised free cremation. Instead I was give the opportunity to participate in a monthly drawing and and if I won the drawing, I would be entitled to a free cremation no matter how long I chose to postpone the happy event.

The National Cremation Society’s invitation to participate in the monthly drawing is affixed as a P.S. to the letter describing the benefits and advises the recipient that last month’s winner was Martin Miller. The Neptune Society’s invitation to participate in the lottery is in a banner across a corner of the mailing and announces that Laura Williams is last month’s winner. Neptune Society inexplicably adds an apology to its solicitation: “[I]f this letter has reached you at a time of serious illness or death in your family,” the exact time one might think such information might be most useful. The National Cremation Society does not include an apology but does say that among the other benefits it provides are the “care and shelter of the deceased,” benefits that do not immediately come to mind as being of much value following death. Indeed, if cremation is the selling point of the mailing, an offer of free shelter seems almost superfluous.

It was a coincidence that both mailings arrived just as the miscremations were making news. Here’s another coincidence. Although the mailings appear to come from two different companies, the return envelope provided in which to accept the invitation to participate in the lottery that comes from National Cremation Society is addressed to NCS Information Center, P.O. Box 826 in Kutztown, PA and the one to be sent to Neptune Society is addressed to Cremation Information Center, PO Box 827 in Kutztown PA. Who knew Kutztown had such a thriving cremation business?

Christopher Brauchli

Christopher Brauchli is a columnist and lawyer known nationally for his work. He is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Colorado School of Law where he served on the Board of Editors of the Rocky Mountain Law Review. He can be emailed at For political commentary see his web page at

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