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State revokes license of Shepherd funeral home

The N.C. Board of Funeral Service revoked the license of Thos. Shepherd & Son Funeral Directors on Nov. 10 after a hearing confirmed numerous violations of state regulations. The N.C. Board of Funeral Service revoked the license of Thos. Shepherd & Son Funeral Directors on Nov. 10 after a hearing confirmed numerous violations of state regulations.

Thos. Shepherd & Son Funeral Directors, one of the oldest continuously operating businesses in Hendersonville, may have conducted its last service.

In an order it issued after a Nov. 10 hearing in Raleigh, the North Carolina Board of Funeral Service revoked the license of the funeral home and its crematory and revoked the funeral director license of Thomas R. Shepherd and the crematory manager permit held by Melody H. Shepherd, Tom Shepherd’s wife and co-owner of the funeral home, crematory and Shepherd Memorial Park.
“Basically what it says is the funeral establishment permit for Thomas Shepherd & Son, the crematory permit and the individual funeral director license for Thomas Shepherd and the crematory license for Melody Shepherd will be revoked and they will not be eligible to reapply for licensure for five years,” Stephen E. Davis, executive director of the Board of Funeral Service, said last week.
The board went on to order that all preneed contract files be transferred immediately to the funeral services board and the board directed staff to “present any criminal charges for any appropriate violations of the law.”
Although Davis said he did not have details on what criminal charges could result from an investigation, the 14-page notice of hearing to show cause spells out numerous incidents that could violate state law.
The funeral home’s troubles date to well before 2018, when the Board of Funeral Services entered into a consent order that stayed its license suspension for one year providing the funeral home comply with general statutes and rules governing the business. The funeral home failed to comply with the terms, the show-cause order said, and after more complaints and an inspection in June of last year, the state suspended the funeral home’s license and ordered it shut down.
The hearing on Nov. 10 included testimony from several witnesses who had filed complaints against the funeral home.
“In general, they have concerns about what is the status of particular arrangements they made,” Davis said. “There was quite a bit of variation in some of the concerns they expressed. … There were a lot of issues.”
Melody and Tom Shepherd participated via Zoom in the hearing, which lasted from around 11 a.m. to mid-afternoon, Davis said. Although the Shepherds had used two different attorneys previously in the action brought by the Board of Funeral Service, they were not represented by counsel on Nov. 10, Davis said.

“They do have the right to judicial review,” he said. “A judicial review would typically go to Superior Court first.”
It was unclear what the couple’s plans were in terms of an appeal. The funeral home’s phone number is out of service and Melody Shepherd’s personal cell phone cannot take voice-mail messages.
“They don’t like me because I’m outspoken and I call them on things,” Melody Shepherd said in July of this year. “It’s me against them but it’s killing Tom and it’s killing us physically, financially and emotionally.” (Davis responded at the time the Board of Funeral Service does not base its decision on personalities.)
The Shepherds’ attorney said in a response to the Board of Funeral Service on Nov. 3, 2020, that because of health issues Tom Shepherd “is not currently competent to address violations.”
If a funeral home were to open in the space at 125 South Church Street, it would not be one operated by the Shepherds.
“The permit for the establishment known as Thomas Shepherd & Son Funeral Home has been revoked and it will not reopen until they apply for a permit and have that approved by the board and they can’t do that for five years,” Davis said.
Family members of people buried at Shepherd Memorial Park have filed numerous complaints against the owners of the cemetery as well. The status of those is unknown. The N.C. Cemetery Commission, which regulates cemeteries and investigates complaints, did not respond to the Lightning’s request for an update.


Consumer rights are protected

Davis emphasized that state law and the Board of Funeral Service regulations strongly protect consumers’ rights in a case of a funeral home’s license revocation.
“I would say we would continue what we have advised since all this began in the fall of 2020 and that is, if they have questions about their preneed arrangements they call the board office we can put them in touch with one of our compliance inspectors,” he said.
When a funeral home sells a preneed contract to a family, the business must deposit any payment paid into a trust account within five days, keep a record of the contract and file a copy with the board in Raleigh.
“What will be different now is that all the preneed files have to be transferred” to the board, Davis said. “They have to audited. The board will be initiating a very thorough, detailed financial audit of those records so that there’s accountability for all the funds, and again that’s to assure protection to consumers’ interests. And then all those preneed files will be transferred presumably to another establishment.”
That does not mean the owner of the preneed contract must use the receiving funeral home, Davis said. If families want to move the contract to a different funeral home, they can.
Shuford Edmisten, of Forest Lawn Funeral Home, said other funeral homes had seen an uptick in business since the state shuttered Thos. Shepherd & Son in November 2020.
“Of course any consumer has the right to utilize any funeral home of their choice,” he said. He referred other questions to Chae Davis, general manager of both Shuler and Forest Lawn, both of which are owned by Altmeyer Funeral Homes, which has 29 locations in four states. Davis did not respond to the Lightning’s request for an interview.

 


License suspended a year ago

The Hendersonville Lightning previously reported on numerous complaints filed against the funeral home and crematory by consumers and on the findings that Board of Funeral Services inspector Christopher Stoessner made during a three-day visit in June 2020. Among the complaints were instances of the funeral home failing to timely cremate a decedent, failing to file death certificates within five days of a death as required by law, allowing unlicensed employees to meet with families on funeral arrangements and failing to provide the board with records it requested.
On May 11, 2020, Martha Walker filed a complaint that an unlicensed employee, Tiffany Blackwell, had met with the family of decedent Mary S. Beck to provide information about a funeral service and the cost, and that the funeral home failed to timely notify the Buncombe County health department of Beck’s death and failed to “timely file a death certificate” for her. When Walker and her family decided to move Beck’s body to a different funeral home, Melody Shepherd “ripped up the signed death certificate … so that the successor funeral home would be required to obtain a new death certificate,” Blackwell told the state inspector.
During his inspection in June 2020, Stoessner found that an employee who held an expired funeral service license was engaged in the practice of funeral services at Shepherd, that the funeral home failed to display a “preneed establishment permit,” and failed to refund to one family insurance money in excess of a funeral cost and failed to credit another family $600 as required under the terms of a preneed contract. At the Shepherd crematory, Stoessner found that the facility was “in a state of disrepair/corrosion,” lacked a required certification from a laboratory and had not been “maintained in good repair or sanitary condition.” He also found that two unlicensed Shepherd employees who were not qualified as crematory technicians had performed cremations at least seven times in 2020.
Stoessner also reported that during his three-day visit he never saw Tom Shepherd, the business’s only licensed funeral director. In November of last year, an attorney for the Shepherds said that because of health issues Tom Shepherd was

Even after the board ordered the funeral home shut down a year ago, complaints continued to come in to the agency’s Raleigh headquarters. Over the past year:
• After her mother passed away on Nov. 25, 2018, Julie Huneycutt paid Thos. Shepherd & Son for funeral services using a funeral annuity, yet never received a death certificate and had to retrieve one herself from the courthouse.
• Christina Webb reported in February of this year that her mother had purchased an inflation-proof preneed contract in 2014 before her death on April 12, 2020. The funeral board’s inspectors found that Melody Shepherd overcharged the family for services by failing to properly calculate the inflation-proof formula.
• In May of this year, Claxton Bailey told regulators that after meeting with an “unlicensed representative” of Shepherd funeral home he paid $3,584 in cash toward preneed services for his mother. The funeral home did not complete a preneed contract, nor file one with the board as required by law, nor deposit the money into a trust account as required. Upon the state agency’s request, the funeral home was unable to provide records of Bailey’s preneed arrangements. After his mother died on April 23 of this year, Bailey paid out-of-pocket for services at a different funeral home. The Shepherd crematory issued a refund to the estate of Bailey’s mother three months later.
The board’s show cause order lists 27 alleged violations of North Carolina law or the rules and regulations of the funeral services board and sanctions including suspension or revocation of the business and personal licenses of the funeral home and Thomas Shepherd and Melody Shepherd and fines of up to $5,000 for violations.

Davis said wherever the Shepherd case leads, the regulatory board will keep the consumers’ interest in mind.

“I can tell you, not just in this case but others that have come before the board, one of the principle concerns always, and it’s really one of our core values, is protection of consumer rights and interests,” he said. “We regulate the funeral industry to protect public safety and health but also to protect consumers from situations where funds might not be accounted for, might be misappropriated. The board is a very strong advocate for the consumer, absolutely.”
At 125 South Church Street downtown, Thos. Shepherd & Son Funeral Directors stands frozen in time, its doors locked, the gated parking lot empty behind the wrought-iron fence, the shrubs’ leaves turning scarlet with the season. Thomas Shepherd’s start in the funeral business came in 1903 when he began selling coffins at the furniture and general merchandise store he managed on Main Street. He opened the funeral home in 1924, and his son, William, joined the family business in 1934, serving as managing funeral director and president until his death in 1965. The Thos. Shepherd Memorial Chapel, a plaque to the left of the sanctuary’s black double doors says, “is dedicated as a memorial to Thos. Shepherd who was loyal to his chosen profession from 1903 to 1940.”