Cape Breton funeral director exonerated over cremation of wrong body

Joe Curry says he is pleased a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge has exonerated him after his funeral director's licence was pulled for cremating the wrong body in 2021. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Joe Curry says he is pleased a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge has exonerated him after his funeral director's licence was pulled for cremating the wrong body in 2021. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

A Cape Breton funeral director who lost his licence after the wrong body was cremated in December 2021 is getting his licence back.

In a written ruling, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Timothy Gabriel called it a sad and unfortunate case, saying the medical examiner's office gave out the wrong body at the hospital and the funeral director was not responsible for the outcome.

Joe Curry, who was with Forest Haven Funeral Home in Sydney when the incident occurred, said he is pleased with the decision.

The day after receiving the ruling, Curry walked into the funeral home office and was immediately greeted enthusiastically by the staff.

"I got my hugs," he said. "They're just a good family for me and I've enjoyed my time here with them, so I'm still part of this group."

The judge said a male body was mistakenly provided to Forest Haven's delivery service at the hospital when it should have been a female.

Matthew Moore/CBC
Matthew Moore/CBC

In a disciplinary decision that resulted in the loss of Curry's licence, the Nova Scotia Board of Registration for Embalmers and Funeral Directors said Curry and his staff should have checked the body after picking it up at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital.

In his ruling, the judge said that might have prevented a wrongful cremation in this case because the genders were different, but it would not always ensure the right body is cremated if the wrong label is attached at the hospital.

Gabriel said it was "telling" that the board and its lawyer "were either loath to, or unable to, provide specifics as to the steps required in [Curry's] duty to identify the remains before cremation.

"When the court queried during argument how the appellant could have identified the body, counsel simply answered, repeatedly, that Mr. Curry should have 'done something'."

The judge said that implies funeral directors are supposed to improvise their own procedures.

Curry said the regulations around handling bodies are good and just need to be a little clearer.

"We do want to show the public that we have seen something here and that we've dotted an i or crossed a t, so that it's now a little more clear," he said.

"Nothing against that, but ... I think a lot of the things are being done well, and correct, now."

Matthew Moore/CBC
Matthew Moore/CBC

The regulations could be tweaked a bit, Curry said, but he is not offering anything specific.

That's because he did everything he was supposed to do once the body was picked up at the hospital, he said.

There have been two instances of wrongful cremation in Nova Scotia in the last five years.

The board of registration has called on the province for improved training requirements and sought tighter regulations around cremation and body identification and tracking, known as chain of custody.

Accidents can happen

Curry said Nova Scotians should have confidence in the process, but says accidents can happen.

"The human thing is something that we don't have control [over] and we cannot legislate human response," he said.

"But we can coach it in such a way that we avoid some of these kinds of things ever occurring again."

Curry, who is 80, said he is looking forward to getting his licence back and helping people, which he has done for decades after starting in his family's funeral business more than 70 years ago.

"I probably will continue to be involved with people who are experiencing the passing of a loved one," he said.

"I've encountered it already this week. So it's going to continue to be an attraction to me to be able to respond if somebody does come to me."

Gary Mansfield/CBC
Gary Mansfield/CBC

Forest Haven owner Dave Wilton, whose funeral home lost its cremation permit for two months after last year's investigation, declined to comment, saying he is waiting for legal advice now that the Curry decision is out.

CBC News contacted the funeral directors registration board, but they were unavailable for comment.

Service Nova Scotia, which oversees the legislation on funeral directors and cremations, said in an email it is reviewing the judge's decision, and no family should have to go through this kind of mix-up.

Nova Scotia Health declined to comment last year, saying it was conducting a quality review after it learned the hospital gave out the wrong body.

On Thursday, the health authority said it does not comment on specific cases.