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Citing numerous violations, state shutters funeral home

State regulators shut down Thos. Shepherd & Son funeral home two weeks ago after inspectors found numerous violations of state laws governing funeral services, cremations and upkeep of its crematory.

The North Carolina Board of Funeral Service ordered the more than 100-year-old company to halt its business, including funeral services and cremations, on Nov. 4. The order for summary suspension of the funeral services was scheduled for a hearing this week at the state board in Raleigh.
The suspension action came eight days after the board issued an order requiring the funeral home to respond to eight separate violations of the law or “concerns that create an ongoing risk of potential harm to consumer’s health, safety and welfare.”
In a series of regulatory actions dating to 2018, state board inspectors have investigated at least six consumer complaints against the funeral home and its crematory, which are owned by Thomas R. “Tom” Shepherd, the licensed funeral director, and his wife, Melody Shepherd. President of the corporation, Melody Shepherd is a licensed crematory manager but not a licensed funeral director.
Thos. Shepherd & Son had agreed to a consent order on Nov. 19, 2018, to resolve a complaint, resulting in a one-year suspension that the state board stayed at the time. The funeral home has failed to comply with terms of the consent order, the board said in its show-cause order.

Families filed complaints

State law tightly regulates funeral services, burials and cremations, spelling out how funeral homes sell and handle preneed insurance policies or preneed payments for funeral services, guiding the filing of death certificates and stating who can perform various services.
State law requires that a death certificate be filed within five days when a person dies, a process that involves a licensed funeral director, a physician and county public health departments, said Darrell Cagle, compliance inspector for the state Board of Funeral Service.
Employees who are not licensed funeral directors are barred from talking to families in detail about funeral costs and financing options; they can read from a prepared price list but must disclose that they are not a licensed funeral director, Cagle said.
In the order, regulators listed five complaints from families who had used services at the funeral home and reported on the findings of an inspection June 23-25 of this year of the funeral home and crematory. According to the state board’s order, here are details of the complaints filed by consumers:
• The board received a complaint in August 2019 from Leta Faye Pressley, who told the agency that the funeral home had “failed to timely cremate decedent Cody Deso,” failed to “timely release” the body to another funeral home as the family requested, failed to “timely apply for a death certificate” and failed to itemize charges for services it provided the family. During the June inspection, the funeral home failed to provide records on the case despite repeated requests over three days from Board of Funeral Service inspector Christopher Stoessner.
• On Aug. 22, 2019, Michael L. Hudgins of Natchez Trace Funeral Home in Madison, Mississippi, called Shepherd to arrange to remove a decedent, Winfield Saxton, for burial at Natchez Trace Memorial Park. Shepherd officials filed a claim to collect for services from Saxton’s preneed insurance policy despite Hudgins’s assurance that his funeral home would pay Thos. Shepherd & Son directly for services it provided, Stoessner said.
• On May 11, Martha Walker made a complaint that an unlicensed employee, Tiffany Blackwell, 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.
• On June 9, Kay Alison Thomas reported to the state board that after the death of her husband, Lawrence George Thomas, on May 16 Shepherd did not obtain a death certificate until May 26 and did not cremate his remains until May 28. The cremation was performed by an unlicensed employee of the Shepherd crematory. The crematory used the wrong form in releasing Thomas’s body to the family and employees failed to properly document the cremation in crematory files, the inspector said.
• On June 15, Susan Simpson complained that Thos. Shepherd & Son took 12 days to provide a death certificate for her husband, Thomas Claude Simpson, who died on May 15, and did not cremate him until June 4. Without telling the family, Shepherd officials arranged for the cremation at a different crematory, then filed a death certificate falsely listing Shepherd “as the performing crematory,” Stoessner said.
During his inspection over three days in June, Stoessner found that:
• Ephraim Johnston Irvin II, who held an expired funeral service license, was engaged in the practice of funeral services at Shepherd.
• The Shepherd funeral home failed to have on display a “preneed establishment permit,” 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 had a refrigeration unit with wood and particle board shelves that was “in a state of disrepair/corrosion,” lacked a required certification from a laboratory and that the crematory was “not maintained in good repair or sanitary condition, in that cremate remains and bone fragments were visible on the edge of the retort (an industrial furnace in which a body is cremated) and in ash collection.”
• Stoessner found that two unlicensed Shepherd employees, Vanessa McCrary and Johnathan Barker, “who are not qualified as crematory technicians,” had performed cremations in at least seven instances this year.

Business originated in 1903

The origins of Thos. Shepherd & Son dates to 1903, when Thomas, Tom Shepherd's grandfather, managed a furniture and general merchandise store on Main Street and sold coffins on the side, the company says on it website. In 1924, Thomas Shepherd opened the funeral home, one of the first in Western North Carolina. Thomas’s son, William, joined the family business in 1934, serving as managing funeral director and president until his death in 1965. Under William Shepherd’s management, the business established Shepherd Memorial Park on Asheville Highway.
Although Tom Shepherd has run the business for decades, medical issues have sidelined him in recent months.
On Oct. 29, two days after the state board issued the show-cause order, the funeral home’s attorney sought a delay in this week's hearing until mid-January because Tom Shepherd had undergone a medical procedure a couple of weeks earlier. On Nov. 3, the company gave the state board documentation that Thomas Shepherd “is not currently competent to address violation” spelled out in the show-cause order. The next day the state board issued the order for summary suspension of the funeral home’s license, the crematory permit at Shepherd Memorial Park, Tom Shepherd’s funeral director license and Melody Shepherd’s crematory manager permit and ordered the business to stop performing funeral services immediately.
Blackwell, the funeral home employee, told Stoessner that she had seen Tom Shepherd once briefly between January and June of this year, when Stoessner’s interview took place. Stoessner noted that he did not see Tom Shepherd at all or interact with him during his three-day visit in June. The state board found that the funeral home “does not have a licensed manager who is overseeing daily operations” of the company or “a licensed officer who is actively engaged in the operation” of the business.
Melody Shepherd, who is not a licensed funeral director, often meets with families to provide information on funeral services prices and to collect information for an obituary, Blackwell told Stoessner. Melody Shepherd “maintains a stack of death certificates” pre-signed by her husband, the inspector wrote. The funeral home “regularly houses decedents for a period of time in excess of 24 hours without embalming or refrigeration,” Stoessner said.
“Whenever our agency issues a summary suspension, that summary suspension is basically a temporary suspension of the funeral establishment’s license and sometimes individuals’ licenses,” said Cagle, the board’s compliance inspector. “It’s basically a hard stop, a cease and desist order until they can come before the board for hearing.”
The show-cause order lists 23 alleged violations either of the 2018 consent order or of state law governing the practice of funeral services, funeral directors and cremation services. If upheld by the Board of Funeral Services, the alleged violations could result in the suspension or revocation of Tom Shepherd’s funeral director’s license and Melody Shepherd’s crematory manager permit and the permits that allow the funeral home and crematory to operation.
A hearing on the summary suspension was scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 18. At the funeral home’s request, a hearing on the show-cause order was postponed until Jan. 13 or later.
The doors are locked at the funeral home on Church Street and its parking lot gate was closed and locked, too. The Lightning was unable to reach funeral home officials or the corporation’s attorney, Michelle Rippon of Asheville, for comment.