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Funeral home performing ‘green’ burials investigated for improper storage of bodies

Fremont County deputies guard the road leading to the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Colo. Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.
Fremont County deputies guard the road leading to the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Colo. Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023. Copyright Jerilee Bennett/AP
Copyright Jerilee Bennett/AP
By Rebecca Ann Hughes with AP
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Under Colorado law, green burials are legal but state code requires that any body not buried within 24 hours must be properly refrigerated.

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Police are investigating a funeral home in a small town in Colorado after a foul smell was reported seeping from a neglected building.

Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose claims to be a ‘green’ establishment where burials are made in biodegradable caskets.

Authorities searched the home’s storage facility and discovered hundreds of decaying bodies.

Coroners from nearby jurisdictions and the FBI are being brought in to investigate.

Bodies stored improperly at green funeral home

Return to Nature Funeral Home owner Jon Hallford is accused of concealing the improper storage of corpses while claiming he was doing taxidermy at the facility, according to a state document.

Hallford acknowledged that he had a “problem” at the property, the Colorado Office of Funeral Home and Crematory Registration letter said.

The document did not elaborate on Hallford’s activities, but the facility's registration has been expired since November.

Speaking at a news conference, Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper called the scene inside the building “horrific”.

On Friday, a sour, rotten stench still came from the back of the building, where windows were broken. Upon entering, police had found 115 decaying bodies inside.

Identifications could require taking fingerprints, finding medical or dental records and DNA testing in a process that could take several months, Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller said. Families would be notified as soon as possible after body identification, he added.

Family members who have used the funeral home were asked to contact investigators.

The FBI was bringing in teams with additional training and specialised equipment that process “scenes of national magnitude”, such as major airline disasters, FBI Special Agent Mark Michalek said.

No one had been arrested or charged in connection with the investigations.

What is a green funeral home?

Demand is increasing for eco-friendly funeral alternatives. Traditional burial can leak chemicals into the surroundings, while cremation creates significant carbon emissions.

The Return to Nature Funeral Home performed burials without embalming chemicals or metal caskets. Instead, it used biodegradable caskets, shrouds or “nothing at all”, according to its website.

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The company charged $1,895 (€1,799) for a ‘natural burial’, not counting a casket or cemetery space, and until July offered cremations, too.

Under Colorado law, green burials are legal but state code requires that any body not buried within 24 hours must be properly refrigerated.

Human composting is legal in six US states but is not available as yet in Europe. However, earlier this year the UK began offering eco-friendly water cremation for the first time.

It is so far unclear whether the funeral home’s ‘green’ approach had any bearing on its conduct.

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