May 22, 2015 by Sara Tatelman
The oven in a crematorium burns at more than 800ºC. Even with all that heat, given what the place does, you might not expect to find the roof—the roof—the roof is on fire. Or the rest of the building. Early on the morning of December 24 last year (yes, almost Christmas Eve), the Innisvale Crematorium near Barrie, Ont. was ablaze. Inspectors later traced the fire to the wooden structure built around the chimney and deemed it to be an accident. Nobody was hurt, and 14 bodies waiting to be processed were safely removed by staff and firefighters. Things were a little awkward with the remains of person number 15—he or she was already ashes, but those couldn’t be retrieved (the family isn’t taking legal action). And “we lost the entire building,” says general manager Nicole McNaughton.
Chimney fires in crematoria are rare but not unheard of. “Body fat burns at 17 times the rate of propane,” says Barbara Kemmis, executive director at the Cremation Association of North America (yep, there really is one). So when a larger body is cremated, especially later in the day when the ovens have already heated up, the temperature in the crematorium can rise too quickly. “…Typically the roof around the chimney heats up so hot that the roof materials combust. In order for that to happen, the temperature in the cremator is out of control, above 2000ºF [1093ºC] or something.”
To avoid roof combustion, the association recommends having operators observe the entire cremation process and modify the temperature in the chamber as necessary. Kemmis also points out that just because bodies with a higher fat content can burn more quickly, it doesn’t mean they should. “You want it to take the right amount of time to cremate properly.”
So despite body fat occasionally causing chimney fires, crematoria aren’t insured all that differently from other businesses.
“You know, to be weird and blunt about it, a crematorium, it’s not that different from a big oven,” says Greg Strahl, a partner at Palladium, an Ottawa brokerage. “That’s not new technology, and it’s not something that’s particularly risky… It’s just property.” And funeral homes face standard plumbing and HVAC risks all the time. Nevertheless, they hold expensive equipment, and Strahl points out crematoria should insure their machinery. But in the death trade, run-of-the-mill auto and property claims are far more common. Although they move slowly, cars in funeral processions go through red lights. The hearse driver and others are “usually travelling very closely together in procession and then somebody falls out of sync and brakes quickly because they’re concerned that somebody’s not going to stop at a red light…so you get these low-speed, rearend collisions.”
If a grave is a house, and a mausoleum is a mansion, a columbarium is a condo. Forest view! Be close to all amenities… which, uh, you won’t use. Given that 66 percent of Canadians who have skated off the mortal rink choose cremation (according to the helpful folks at the cremation association), many cemeteries now offer these handy niche walls, in which to place your ashes. “We insure them as we would insure a building,” says Strahl. “So you think of them as a tiny, tiny apartment for cremated remains.”
Although these mini apartment blocks aren’t at risk for electrical fires, they are exposed to vehicles, floods, earthquakes and other hazards. “Oftentimes, cemeteries have forests of old growth trees,” says Strahl. “And if there’s a windstorm that knocks one down, and it hits a columbarium and destroys it, well, there could be $100,000 in property that just got knocked over by a tree.”
Then there are headstones. In May 2014, twenty headstones in Winnipeg’s Hebrew Sick Benefit Cemetery were knocked over, with damages estimated at $40,000. There was no evidence it was a hate crime, but it brought to mind the 1999 attack at the same cemetery, in which vandals toppled 300 headstones and destroyed 85 beyond repair.
Etz Chayim, the synagogue that oversees three Winnipeg cemeteries including Hebrew Sick, declined to comment on their policies, but coverage is available. While headstones are technically the property of the deceased’s family, Strahl has arranged commercial coverage for tombstones in several Jewish cemeteries. “We actually insure them [as] fine art, so we get very, very broad coverage.”
Cemeteries also face slip and fall claims. “You’re burying a coffin that’s made of wood and that can degrade over time,” says Strahl. “So eventually the ground can sink in that particular area.” And funeral goers, wearing dress shoes with little grip, often slip in the mud come springtime. “We have seen it occur where a member of the public is walking and they literally find themselves up to their hips in …a gravesite.”
Keeping maintenance logs and training staff in first aid can help keep “slip-andfall-into-a-grave” lawsuits to a minimum, but they won’t defend against the much rarer claims of negligence regarding security.
In 2010, a 61-year-old woman was violently beaten and raped while visiting her mother’s grave at Pine Hills Cemetery in Scarborough, Ont. The victim filed a $4.25-million lawsuit against the nowimprisoned attacker, the owners of the cemetery, the security services provider and the guard on duty when she was attacked. She claims the two companies and the guard failed to prevent dangerous people from entering the premises and to warn visitors after a fatal assault took place on or near the cemetery 10 months before she was attacked. The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care has also filed a nearly $36,000 lawsuit against the companies for the victim’s past and future medical care. The case is ongoing.
For funeral homes, there’s jewelry theft to worry about. There’s nothing to stop a stranger from dropping in on a visitation and sliding diamonds off Grandma’s finger when nobody else is around. “If jewelry were to go missing,” says Strahl, “family members are obviously going to note that and potentially make a claim…” But he adds that he’s never seen a claim for funeral home jewelry theft in his career.
Cynthia Roth, a partner at Lackner McLennan, a brokerage in Waterloo, Ont., agrees that cases are rare. “Every once in a while, there could be a situation where one family member wanted [the deceased] buried with the ring, and another family member didn’t… But for the most part, we don’t see a lot [of jewelry claims].”
Jewelry causes less hassle actually than technology.
Because another uncommon risk is damage to the interior of a crematorium from exploding batteries. If a pacemaker, implanted defibrillator or deep brain stimulator isn’t removed beforehand, its batteries will combust and damage the walls, door or floor. And Kemmis says while staff injury has never happened, operators could be hurt by the detonations.
If a family isn’t sure their relative had implanted medical devices, a quick metal detector test can usually tell. And to remain on the safe side, crematorium operators don’t check on bodies during the first hour of the process. As Kemmis says, “it’s during that time period that something, if there is something present, will make its presence known.”
Batteries don’t like to be cremated and some people don’t either, which is why funeral professionals must always follow the chain of identification. A number is assigned to each body, which is handy when Smith and Smythe pass away on the same day. “So when mistakes happen,” says Kemmis, “it’s often, ‘I put that body in that casket right there last night. I’ll take that body this morning but not realize that somebody else moved the casket throughout the night.’ … It’s very rare.”
But it does happen. Marguerite Mercier-Pelletier, 81, passed away in 2012. When her children arrived at the chapel for the funeral, they were horrified to see the woman in the coffin was a complete stranger wearing their mother’s clothes. And the mistake was irreversible because their mother had been cremated. Montreal’s La Presse reported that Mercier-Pelletier had been a devout Catholic who had her husband’s grave dug extra deep so her coffin could one day be placed on top of his. Her six children successfully sued the Oscar St-Ours funeral home in Shawinigan, Que. for $570,000 in damages, which the insurance company covered, explained Jérôme St-Ours, the funeral home’s manager.
“It’s more of a heartstring-type thing,” says Strahl about mishandled bodies in general. “It’s not a great financial loss but there is definitely a problem with a family that’s grieving a loved one who has been mishandled.” That’s where E & O insurance kicks in, which “would help to take care of that kind of very uncommon circumstance.”
So, insurers in the funeral industry cover accidental cremation, falling into graves and stolen rings, plus the usual hearses and embalming equipment. What’s next? Pollution liability coverage for crematoria, says Strahl. Modern crematoria have a second chamber dedicated to incinerating any leftover particles, and that cuts down on smoke and other emissions. Nevertheless, some community groups are concerned about mercury emissions from dental fillings, but Kemmis argues that “frankly, there are more emissions coming from your local steak house or fast food restaurant than all the crematories in the area combined.”
But Strahl predicts insurers will offer such coverage, especially for older cemeteries in urban areas. These clients “are occasionally now raising that concern with me, and we’re discussing the possibility that neighbours surrounding the property may at some point allege or claim that there’s some form of pollution coming out of that environment.”
For the Innisvale Crematorium in Innisfil, Ont., smoke won’t hopefully be a cause for alarm again. Three months after the fire on Christmas Eve, Nicole McNaughton is working out of “a beautiful little trailer parked at the cemetery” and hopes to be back in a new building and crematorium within a year.
Copyright 2015 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the April 2015 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine
This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.