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Board of Funeral Service may refer Shepherd findings to law enforcement

The North Carolina Board of Funeral Service may refer the findings of its lengthy investigation of Thos. Shepherd & Son Funeral Directors to law enforcement authorities “for consideration as to whether criminal charges are warranted.”

The potential for criminal charges was part of the final agency decision the regulatory board issued last week based on its three-year investigation of the funeral home and its business operations on Church Street and at Shepherd Memorial Park, where it operates a crematory.

"Our legal and compliance staff are still assessing whether to send any recommendations to law enforcement if criminal violations are identified," Stephen Davis, executive director of the regulatory board, said via email. "If so, those recommendations will be forwarded to the Henderson County District Attorney."

The cemetery has also been the subject of numerous complaints from family members of people buried there. Cemeteries are regulated by the N.C. Cemetery Commission, which has filed a complaint in Henderson County Superior Court seeking to put the memorial park in receivership.

During a hearing on Nov. 10, the funeral service board heard testimony and evidence about nine complaints from consumers and details about a Board of Funeral Service inspector’s examination of the business in June of 2020.
A family members who had filed complaints against the funeral home testified in person at the hearing last month or submitted affidavits about their experience dealing with funeral home employees.
Martha Walker, who had filed a complaint about her interactions with the funeral home, testified before the board in 2020 that she met with two Shepherd employees who were not licensed funeral directors — Tiffany Blackwell and Ephraim Johnston “John” Irvin II — and that the funeral home failed to file a death certificate after the death of her mother, Mary S. Beck.
Blackwell, who worked at the funeral home from January 2020 until June 2020, became a key witness at last month’s hearing into numerous allegations contained in the board’s case against the 118-year-old business. She testified that:
• She only saw Thomas Shepherd at the business one time in her six months there.
• Melody Shepherd directed her to meet with Martha Walker about funeral services.
• Melody Shepherd “maintained a stack of death certificates that were pre-signed” by her husband and that “when employees … needed a death certificate they would take one of the pre-signed certificates out of the cabinet for their use.”
• She saw Melody Shepherd sign her husband’s name on a death certificate.
• When Martha Walker and her family decided to transfer Mary Beck’s body to another funeral home, Melody Shepherd “ripped up the signed death certificate for Decedent Beck so that the successor would be required to obtain a new death certificate.”
• She observed John Irvin embalm bodies, though he did not hold an active funeral service or embalmer license.
• She often saw Melody Shepherd, who did not hold a funeral service license, meet with families about funeral arrangements.
• When she took a 10-day “leave of absence” in May of 2020, she returned to find “unembalmed decedents who had been stored at (the funeral home) without refrigeration during the full period that she was on leave.”
During the hearing, the board also heard from Kay Alison Thomas, who testified about the funeral home’s handling of services after the death of her husband, Lawrence George Thomas. Based on her testimony, the board found that the unlicensed employee, Irvin, met with Kay Alison Thomas about funeral arrangements, that the funeral home failed to timely file a death certificate and that an unlicensed employee performed the cremation of Mr. Thomas.
The board heard details and reviewed evidence about numerous other consumer complaints and heard from Board of Funeral Service inspector Christopher Stoessner about his visit in June of 2020 to the funeral home on Church Street and the crematory at Shepherd Memorial Park. Among Stoessner’s findings were that unlicensed employees had conducted at least seven cremations.
In its conclusions of law the board found that the funeral home had not employed a licensed manager or licensed officer who was “actively involved with its daily operations” since July 27, 2021, or displayed licenses and permits as required by law and failed to timely file death notifications and death certificates as required by law, had violated rules on preneed and at-need contracts and committed other violations. It found that Melody Shepherd had practiced funeral directing without a license and as crematory manager had failed to properly maintain the facility and maintain receipts required by law and had allowed unlicensed employees to perform cremations.
Efforts to reach Thomas and Melody Shepherd were unsuccessful. The business’s phone line says the number is “temporarily out of service.” Melody Shepherd’s cell phone said the voice mailbox is full and can’t receive messages. Under state law, the Shepherds and the funeral home have 30 days to appeal the board’s revocation order. An appeal would be heard in Henderson County Superior Court.