Woman fights funeral home for right to bury uncle

Attorneys: Important to put wishes in writing

MARTINSVILLE, Ind. - Family members and two funeral homes have been battling over who has the right to bury a loved one.

Forrest Sanders was 88 years old when he died on Feb. 27. His body remained at a Martinsville funeral home after his death while the fight escalated over who had the right to bury him.

"And I feel like that's disrespectful. My uncle would not want this. He would not want a battle over his body," Sanders’ niece, Lisa Stierwalt, said.

Stierwalt said in 2010, her uncle gave her power of attorney over his affairs and made her his health care representative. She cared for him until he died.

It was expected all along that Costin Funeral Chapel would handle his arrangements when he died.

However, after Sanders died, Stierwalt got into a dispute with the owner of Costin Funeral Chapel and decided to have Indiana Green Burial in Bloomington handle the burial instead.

After she made that decision, the Indiana State Police, the attorney general, prosecutors and even the Federal Trade Commission became involved in the case.

According to state law, it was determined Stierwalt did not have authorization over the disposal of his remains. It was decided that right belongs to Sanders’ closest blood relatives -- an estranged brother and sister.

"He found an elderly sister and a brother who had not spoken to my uncle for several years and my uncle didn't have a good relationship with them," Stierwalt said about Costin.

The brother and sister chose to bury Sanders at Costin’s funeral home.

According to the attorney for Costin Funeral Chapel, even though Stierwalt was given power of attorney, something was missing -- her uncle’s authorization for her to dispose of his remains.

"Costin Funeral Chapel must agree with the brother and sister. The closest blood relatives of the deceased and take care of the funeral," Costin Funeral Chapel attorney Mark Waterfill said.

Nathan Butler owns Indiana Green Burials. He said he would like to see more clarity in the law over who makes decisions for a deceased family member.

"That's the biggest thing we're dealing with here. How can we respect the dead and how can we comfort the grieving and keep them from having to go through so much," Butler said.

Sanders will be buried by Costin Funeral Chapel on Friday, but Stierwalt said she will not be attending the service. She said she will have a separate service for her uncle Wednesday -- without his body.

Attorneys said the case highlights the importance of making final wishes known in writing.

Follow Chris Proffitt on Twitter: @chrisproffitt

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