Durham family mortuary tries to keep business going

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 18, 2013

DURHAM (AP) — There is no sign in front of the mill house on Trent Drive that is surrounded by a residence, businesses and a church playground.
But beyond the black wrought iron patio set, behind a red door and matching mailbox, is a 34-year-old family business steeped in death.
A desk and urns sit in the front room. An empty coffin, chairs and a gurney occupy a modest viewing room. There’s a storage room filled with wooden boxes used to ship human remains and another room containing two embalming stations.
Welcome to Professional Mortuary Service, one of just a handful of businesses across the state that offers its services to other funeral homes. The company has carved out a niche over the years taking the jobs that other funeral homes don’t know how to do, don’t want to do, or don’t have time to do.
“I handle mostly hard to do and oddball cases,” says William Lum-Sandlin, 28, the second-generation owner-operator of Professional Mortuary. “As in domestic or international transportation or shipment. The worst of the worst, whether it be decomposed bodies or larger bodies, burn victims, massive festerations.”
These days Lum-Sandlin faces perhaps his hardest case yet: how to keep the business going while overcoming a host of challenges, most of which stem from his family failing to pay federal taxes for a 14-year stretch.
But Lum-Sandlin isn’t ready to let go of a business he grew up in. When he was a toddler, he shared the Trent Street home with the funeral home and its bodies. When he was in high school, he helped his father pick up bodies across the Triangle. Now, when he’s not working to get a body to its final resting place, he’s shaping blocks of wood into urns and building and selling the shipping trays that are required to surround coffins on airplanes.
“The only value in the company is the work that we actually do,” Lum-Sandlin said.
Companies such as Professional Mortuary step in when a funeral home owner needs help, goes on vacation or doesn’t want to handle certain tasks or cases, said Pete Burke, executive director of the state’s Board of Funeral Service.
In North Carolina. there are about 758 licensed funeral establishments, or funeral homes that meet minimum standards that include an embalming room and a reposing room that can host a small group of people for a visitation or a service.
Out of those companies, only a handful provide trade services to other funeral homes, Burke said.
Professional Mortuary provides direct creations and access to its modest viewing room. It provides services to out-of-state funeral homes that need a body transported to the airport, across the state, or internationally.
The company is also one of many funeral homes that transports bodies for organizations, such as the state medical examiner’s office, or that assists people who want something unusual done with their ashes — such as have them sent into space, made into a diamond or have their tissues given to science.
Professional Mortuary charges $995 for a direct cremation. When picking up a body for another funeral home, the cost varies depending on what is required. A straight-forward assignment starts at $900, which includes picking up and removing the body and making sure all the documents are in order to ship it domestically. International shipping various from country to country — for Mexico, it costs $4,200 plus air fare.
Greg Whisenant, co-owner of E. F. Drum Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Lincolnton, said he turns to Professional Mortuary for help translating documents and figuring out procedures for certain international body shipments, which accounts for 5 percent to 10 percent of his total business.
“We have a lot of people move here, and we send them back home,” Whisenant said.
Whisenant also turns to Professional Mortuary when he needs to bring someone back home after a death on vacation.
Families “don’t have to be out here running in all different directions saying ‘What do we do now? How do we do this,”’ Whisenant said.
Lum-Sandlin’s stepfather, Lester Sandlin, started Professional Mortuary after buying and remodeling the Trent Street home in 1979.
In the late 1960s, Sandlin, who graduated from a Philadelphia mortuary school in 1965, moved to Chapel Hill and took a position overseeing the bequeathal program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine. In 1979, he started moonlighting in trade services after buying and renovating the house on Trent Street.
Sandlin’s first private, international body shipment came in 1982 after a three-day, high-profile standoff on an Amtrak sleeping car in Raleigh. A Colombian drug trafficker shot his sister, and her 8-month old son died from dehydration.
Sandlin was asked to prepare the bodies to be transported back to Colombia. Shortly thereafter, a friend summoned Sandlin to a Raleigh funeral home to take a case involving a Hispanic family.
Sandlin drove the death certificate and other documents up to the Mexican Consulate in Washington, D.C., to work out the international shipping requirements.
“It was simpler than I thought it was,” Sandlin, 71, said. “The consulate and I became very good friends.”
Over the years, Sandlin built a niche in shipping bodies out of the country, a service that became more in demand as immigration increased. He and a handful of contract workers and companies handled the transportation and mortuary services, and his wife, Martha, helped out in the office.
Not paying taxes wasn’t Professional Mortuary’s only problem. Sandlin’s licenses for embalming and serving as a funeral director were revoked in 1986 after he plead no-contest to misdemeanor embezzlement charges related to shipping unclaimed bodies for UNC-Chapel Hill. The criminal charges resulted in five years of supervised probation. His embalmer license was reissued in 1989. His funeral service license was reissued in 2003.
But the business continued to expand in the 1990s, and at its peak, Professional Mortuary was handling between 800 and 1,200 cases a year. Those cases ranged from Hispanic immigrants needing to return home to Duke University patients to prisoners who died at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex.
In recent years, however, business has declined rapidly. More funeral homes are handling international and domestic shipping themselves, and only turning to Professional Mortuary to help with the documents or to assist with complex cases.
Professional Mortuary expects to handle only about 180 cases this year, Martha Sandlin said, as health issues have hindered her and her husband’s ability to address their tax debt and manage their employees and customers.
The Internal Revenue Service has filed tax liens against Lester and Martha Sandlin for income taxes and penalties that total more than $262,000 from 1995 to 2009. Lum-Sandlin also owes about $12,291 in income taxes from 2006 and 2007.
An IRS representative said he couldn’t comment on specific cases. Federal tax liens only represent a moment in time when they are filed and don’t reflect any payments that have been made. Once a lien is paid in full, federal officials file a certified release of the lien. Lien releases indicate that Lester Sandlin has paid more than $19,000 in tax debts related to employees’ withholdings.
The family sold downtown property and worked with attorneys, accountants and the IRS to pay off the company’s direct debts and set up a payment plan for their taxes, Lum-Sandlin said.
To hear Lum-Sandlin tell it, he has spent most of his short career trying to save the business.
After graduating from Riverside High School in 2004, Lum-Sandlin enrolled in Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. He said he only became aware of the company’s financial problems when he moved home in 2006.
These days, Lum-Sandlin is trying to keep the business afloat while paying off the company’s back taxes and other debts. He made the difficult decision this year to stop providing services to Butner, which ships more than 130 bodies each year.
Lum-Sandlin said he had concerns about the prison staff’s ability to provide the company with correct details — identifying and notifying the next of kin and providing Social Security numbers and other information that Professional Mortuary needed to bury or ship a body.
Edmond Ross, a spokesman with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, confirmed Professional Mortuary had a contract to provide services to the Butner complex but terminated it earlier this year. The contract was awarded to another company earlier this month, Ross wrote in an email. He declined to provide additional information.
Professional Mortuary also was cited by the N.C. Department of Labor this year and fined $2,800 for “serious” violations of state labor laws, including a lack of training, hazard signs and systems in the embalming room, along with excessive employee exposure to formaldehyde. Lum-Sandlin said he worked with state officials to correct the violations within 15 days, and they helped make his business better.
Lum-Sandlin is now working with the IRS and an attorney to declare bankruptcy. He plans to relaunch the company with a simplified business model that will involve handling fewer bodies and better financial oversight.
“I cannot have been screwing it up too much because I have been able to keep it going this far, but all these garnishments and everything has been stacked against me,” he said. “If I can ever get this force off my back, I will be able to really do something.”