ANNAPOLIS–Heather Sinclair shifted to the edge of her seat before a Maryland legislative committee. She had a hot pink streak in her hair and a point to make: “I was not going to let my grandmother become property of the state.”
Her grandmother’s ashes rested centrally on the hearing-room table in what resembled a wooden jewelry box. By the end of the hearing Sinclair hoped she would have more than charred remains to show for her Mom-Mom’s legacy–she would have the beginnings of Nancy’s Law.
Named after Nancy Porter, the bill, which died in committee this year, sought to extend the grace period from three to 14 days before an unclaimed body becomes Maryland property and is released for use in medical science.
It would also grant any willing relative or friend the right of final disposition–a notion that made Maryland funeral directors cringe and envision hundreds of grief-filled lawsuits.
Though Nancy’s Law never went further than five minutes in a committee hearing and a Facebook page started by Sinclair, it exposed a little-known rule about what happens when you die in Maryland without a will.
Remains, Cremains, Donate or Crate
According to Maryland law, there are four ways to dispose of a body: burial, cremation, donation or shipping outside of Maryland to either another state or country.
Based on a vital statistics report from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, there were 45,688 deaths among Maryland residents in 2014. Most were buried in a traditional casket. Still, more than one-third opted for cremation last year, according to the Maryland Board of Morticians and Funeral Directors Executive Director Ruth Ann Arty.
As of April 5, there were 923 certified morticians practicing in the state and 174 crematory operators working 39 crematories in Maryland.
Arty has headed operations for six years, including a time when crematories and body transporters went unregulated and people could work without certification or experience. That was only until about two years ago.
“Prior to the 2014 Mortuary Transportation Act, a station wagon and 25 bucks would get you a transport,” Arty said.
Under current regulations, all operators must hold licenses, pass through criminal checks, pass coursework conducted by the board, be more than 18 years old, hold a valid driver’s license, and be “of good moral character.”
Aside from these regulations, disposition laws have remained largely unchanged for decades.
But the decision doesn’t always rest with choosing from among four postmortem options.
It’s getting the people with an interest in where your remains should go to all agree. Sometimes they don’t.
And that’s exactly what happened June 2015 in the case of Nancy Porter, who left a bigger legacy in death than in life.
The Life of Nancy Porter
Nancy Porter was a Long Island, N.Y., girl before moving to eastern Maryland with her family when she was a teenager. She met Ronnie Bowden, a farm boy from Delaware, at a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Salisbury, where both their parents regularly worshipped, and married him at her grandparents’ house in 1964.
They had two children, Ronald and Tammy, who grew up, had children of their own and lived nearby. Heather Sinclair, Tammy’s only daughter, recalled her grandmother’s love for baking sweets and for her massive 1968 red Dodge pickup truck, which “drove like a boat.”
“Whatever you needed was in the back of her truck–it didn’t matter if it was toothpaste that you needed or junk food, she was always buying everything for everyone,” Sinclair laughed. “We called her the Mary Poppins of Dodge Rams.”
Porter and Bowden filed for divorce in 1979.
“She was used to the hustle and bustle and I was from a more quiet place,” Bowden remembered.
Porter was a bride five times in her lifetime; Bowden remarried in 1980.
According to Bowden, she worked 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. shifts at Showell Farms processing poultry, “getting them ready for what you see in the grocery.”
But pulled chicken parts are not what Porter will be remembered for, nor the accounting job she had afterwards. It’s the legal loophole explored after her death that got one state legislator’s attention.
When Porter died on June 2, 2015, at age 68 at Peninsula Medical Center in Salisbury after suffering from kidney cancer, she set off a custody conflict, not just among family members, but between Porter’s granddaughter and the state.
According to state law, if a person dies in a hospital or nursing home, the staff must contact the individual’s next of kin to claim the body and decide whether to cremate, bury, ship, or donate it, within 72 hours. The surviving spouse or domestic partner has first rights to their loved one’s remains.
If for any reason the spouse forgoes his or her right of disposition, under Maryland lineage laws, the onus falls on an adult child, a parent, an adult sibling, a signed and authorized proxy, or a guardian. If none of these people come forward within three days, the body can be claimed by anyone willing to act as the authorizing agent and arrange for a funeral or final resting place.
When Porter died, the hospital contacted the only name they had on file, “Daniel Steele,” Porter’s fifth and final husband, of three months. None of Porter’s blood relatives were notified of her death.
“We don’t reach out beyond the identified next of kin to alert them that a death has occurred,” said Roger Follebout Jr., director of community relations at Peninsula Regional Medical Center. “Whenever anyone is coming in here to be treated as a patient, it’s one of the standard questions we ask them. If someone is alleging that we should have reached out to more than the next of kin, that’s not our practice and that’s not our policy.”
When Steele began plans to donate Porter’s body to medical science, her surviving relatives balked. With pressure from Porter’s family, Steele chose not to do anything, kept quiet for 72 hours, and in silence, left her unclaimed body as property of the state.
Husband No. 5
Daniel Steele remembered doing simple activities with Nancy Porter at Somerset Gardens, the assisted-living home, where they both lived.
“We’d just sit out in front of the building she loved to see the geese,” Steele said. “She called them HER geese. We was together all the time.”
Steele and Porter married on Feb. 25, 2015.
“We had a preacher, I had a best man, and she had her daughter as a maid of honor,” Steele said. “It was real nice and I’ve got pictures in a small wedding album.”
Sinclair said she doesn’t remember a ceremony.
“They had a civil service, and after (Porter) died I wanted to see proof that they were actually legally married, to make sure that he actually had the right of being her spouse.”
Indeed he was, and ultimately had the legal right to determine the fate of Porter’s body. According to Steele, Porter had told him that she wanted to be donated.
“Nancy wanted to help anyone she could even after she died,” Steele said. “On her driver’s license she was (an organ) donor.”
Nancy was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness, a Christian sect whose members take a non-negotiable stance toward giving or accepting blood transfusions. Her family insisted Porter would never have submitted her body for medical science.
The only document that could have clarified everything was a will. Nancy Porter died without one.
Wills are easy to obtain but 66 percent don’t have them
Written or typed, a last will and testament is the indisputable voice of the how a person wants to distribute his or her property after death. Just as wills are used to apportion jewelry, or bequeath a house and estate, a person’s body is considered property under law and disposition can be arranged too.
Even though 95 percent of Americans believe that wills or estate-planning documents are important, according to a 2015 Everplans survey, nearly 66 percent of adults don’t have one.
“As people get older they don’t want to burden their families with their disposition arrangements,” Arty said. “We just don’t want to plan for our own demise.”
With living wills and advanced directives, people often appoint someone to act as a proxy for them to make treatment decisions if they are incapacitated. Typically a person leaves specific instructions and preferences for medical treatment. Maryland recognizes all wills or advanced directives if the party is at least 18 years of age and of sound mind, and it is signed by two witnesses, according to the Maryland State Bar Association.
Sinclair was not aware her grandmother didn’t have a will until after she died, but the granddaughter said she wasn’t surprised.
“(People) don’t want to deal with death, they think they have forever; and that was like my grandmother, she thought she was invincible,” Sinclair said.
The man in charge of medical science bodies
Four human hearts embalmed in silicon and laced with cobalt blue arteries, sat like paperweights on his desk. There’s a showcase with an arm stripped to its humerus which rested on the top shelf of his armour. A floor-to-ceiling Egyptian sarcophagus behind his desk stared toward his volumes of law books, filled with amendments and codes he’s memorized during his 40 years in the business.
Ronn Wade, director at the State Anatomy Board, saw over 2,400 corpses come through the doors of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 2015. In his line of work, he’s required to deal with grieving relatives, maintain a sterile environment and find the most efficient way for state’s dead to serve the living.
Wade worked as a part-time mortician during college and was a medic in Vietnam, and has been presiding over the anatomy board since 1973. In that time, he’s witnessed countless cases in his dual role as one of Maryland’s most experienced morticians and a liaison to grieving families, but Nancy Porter’s case stuck out to him.
For 19 days, Nancy Porter’s body was locked in a freezer with 729 other unclaimed cadavers. During that time, Heather Sinclair bounced between circuit courts trying to get authorization to override the lineage law, while she harangued the State Anatomy Board with daily phone calls to let her bury “Mom-Mom.”
On June 16, 2015, two weeks postmortem, she received authorizing agency to claim Porter’s corpse. By the time Sinclair drove from her home in Queenstown to the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and drew back the plastic covers, she was mortified.
“I pulled the sheet back and she was mutilated,” Sinclair said.
Although Wade did everything he could to postpone Porter’s donation, he couldn’t prolong the natural course of body decomposition.
“It only takes 12 hours before it’s not so pleasant,” Arty said.
Regardless of whether a body ends up being claimed, the first thing Wade does when he receives a body is take a blood sample and test for infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis.
He then drains the body of fluid and replaces it with phenol, a strong disinfectant and embalming fluid that swells the tissue and turns bodies “puffy,” as opposed to formaldehyde, which isn’t very disinfecting but retains body features.
“In a funeral home you want John to look like John, you want Mary to look like Mary, but it’s a short-term effect,” he said. “If you go to mortuary school, they tell you the purpose of embalming is to sanitize, preserve and retain the cosmetic effect.”
Wade disinfected Porter with phenol, so when Sinclair claimed her from the 14-degree Fahrenheit freezer more than three weeks after her death, Nancy did not look like Nancy.
“She was mummified,” Sinclair recalled.
Porter was cremated two days later, because her body wasn’t suitable for a wake. Her cremains are in the wooden box, perched in Sinclair’s kitchen on a baking rack beside flour, sugar and other spices.
“She loved to cook,” Sinclair said.
What if I’m on vacation when my relative dies; will the state just take him for science?
Under Maryland law, if no one claims the body within 72 hours, it comes under the care and custody of Wade. On policy, Wade waits an extra 14 days to see whether any relatives come forward before preparing the body for donation.
Because of Wade’s cautious approach, last year 610 bodies, about 45 percent of the unclaimed 1,339 left to the board, were picked up.
Wade said the 14-day extension proposed under Nancy’s Law wouldn’t change the way they operate, since it’s already an unspoken practice. Regardless, the Anatomy Board didn’t openly come out in support.
On March 8, when Sinclair testified before a House of Delegates committee and shared her story, the biggest opposition came from the Maryland State Funeral Directors Association. They didn’t have a problem with amending the wait time from three days to 14, but said that disrupting the lineage hierarchy would “simply be playing litigation lottery.”
They said taking away a law that’s “successfully worked for 20 years” would present even more disputes concerning the right of disposition, according to the association’s written testimony.
“No funeral home or crematory would possibly rely on this new proposal and recognize a completely new and unrelated person claiming a right of disposition that would overrule and replace the spouse, children, or other close relatives,” James Doyle, an attorney and lobbyist testifying on behalf of the Maryland State Funeral Directors Association, wrote. “No business would be willing to assume such uncertain and unknown liability.”
Nancy’s Law did not make it past committee hearings.
Putting a price on a loved one
Maryland spends $800,000 to keep the State Anatomy Board running, but in the end, the board pays for itself by charging medical students, morticians, military units, trauma groups — even lawyers — to use unclaimed cadavers or those of Marylanders who donated their bodies for research.
On a per-body basis, the cost to the state is about $700 for transportation of the body, chemical preparation, phenol-sterilizing preparation, body pouches, a three-layered cardboard cremation box and the cremation itself. But bodies can be used as many as 10 to 12 times depending on the purpose.
For example, a Maryland medical school can cut open a cadaver for $140, or can pay for body sections. As part of an interagency agreement with all medical schools in the state, students get the best deal — $84 for the upper-lower torso, the same price for the head and neck.
“The state is going to spend its general state funds to take care of the disposition of the body, but what the law says, is that … we have rights to the use of the body to advance medical education, clinical training and research study,” Wade said. “We’re going to spend public funds, but the public is also going to get the benefit to advance medical study through the use of the body before it’s cremated.”
Handling cadavers doesn’t scare Whitney Foard much: The 23-year-old’s childhood bedroom was above RT Foard Funeral Homes in Rising Sun. Her father owns three other funeral homes, and some of her earliest memories involve dead people.
“I was always around it, it never really bothered me,” Foard said.
Kathleen Barranco, 25, had a similar upbringing, lending a hand growing up in her father’s funeral home in Severna Park.
Foard and Barranco are studying to be morticians at The Community College of Baltimore County, which holds classroom lectures and hands-on practicals with donated and unclaimed bodies at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
They agreed working on on real skin grafts is superior to handling synthetic materials, like some medical institutions have been known to use.
“Everyone’s body is different,” Barranco said. “If you just have something synthetic, it’s going to be the same thing every single time, and if you’re going to go into the prep room at a funeral home and have a severely mangled body, and have no idea what to do with it because all you’ve ever worked with is plastic, that’s not good. I just feel much more confident going into the prep room after this.”
Foard and Barranco sat with beaming smiles as they discussed switching their majors from nursing and psychology to mortuary science.
“Everything changed after my freshman year of college. I went in for nursing and it didn’t even pan out,” Foard recalled, “I called my dad crying and he said, ‘Come work for me over the summer and see what it’s really like.’ So that’s what I did and I loved it.”
A Dignified Service
Every year on the third of June the Anatomy Board plans a burial ceremony for donors’ cremated ashes on the grounds of Springfield State Hospital in Sykesville.
They are buried beneath a communal tombstone that reads: “This monument has been placed with deep appreciation for those who gave unselfishly of themselves to advance medical education and research.”
After a body is cremated, Wade holds onto the ashes for one year, just in case family members step forward and say they want them. After the year, they’re buried together with the others donated their same year.
Wade will give a speech about their selfless contribution, a pastor, priest or rabbi will say a prayer, and medical students will thank the families. Three hundred usually attend; there have always been tears and flowers, but also, Wade said, gratitude and closure.