The world's largest funeral company has agreed to pay $100m (58m) in damages for digging up bones from its graves and throwing them away to make room for more coffins.
Service Corp International (SCI) was reported yesterday to have agreed the settlement in a series of lawsuits after accusations that its employees desecrated the graves at two Jewish cemeteries in Florida.
Two years ago, it emerged that workers at the Florida cemeteries had been throwing bones from graves into nearby woods. They had also been burying bodies in the wrong plots and opening vaults so that more bodies could be buried and profits increased.
Coffins had been removed and destroyed so that more bodies could be fitted into graves as the cemetery became too crowded.
An investigation was launched using DNA techniques to ascertain the origin of bones found in the woods. Once it became clear that there were more than a few isolated cases, a class action lawsuit was initiated by lawyers for 2,000 relatives of the people whose graves had been disturbed. The action sought retribution for emotional distress.
SCI, which owns 1,700 funeral homes across North and South America and in France, said yesterday it had agreed to settle all but one of the actions. A total of $100m will be paid in compensation. The settlement will be presented to Judge Leonard Fleet for approval in Fort Lauderdale today.
SCI, based in Houston, Texas, has stressed that the actions were carried out by local workers without the knowledge of senior personnel. "Most of the plaintiffs are relieved that the case is over and they don't have to endure a lengthy trial," a spokesman for their lawyers told Reuters yesterday.
Two of those bringing the lawsuits, Sheldon Cohen and Paula Trigureros, claimed that 20 years after their father, a retired air force colonel, was buried at the Menorah Gardens cemetery in West Palm Beach, his remains had been disposed of in neighbouring woods.
Criminal charges have also been filed against the company and two employees. In October, a former supervisor at the West Palm Beach cemetery admitted exhuming two bodies without notifying relatives. He was given three years' probation and agreed to give evidence against the company.
SCI has paid $14m in fines and compensation following an action brought by the Florida state attorney general. SCI has promised new procedures so that the offences cannot be repeated.