“Don’t tell me they’re not burning bodies. I was at the ovens at Auschwitz.”
Good evening, and welcome to another episode of Lawyers & Liquor Presents Freaky Friday. I’m your host, the BOOzy Barrister, here to guide you through the dark world of human, and not-so-human, nature as we explore the paranormal, the macabre, the spooky, and the downright sickening aspects of the law. This month, we have a real treat for you, a home cooked meal if you wish, arising from the curious case of Pasadena California’s Lamb Funeral Home and its erstwhile owner, David Sconce, whose attempts to make it exceedingly clear “You can’t take it with you” led to a massive reform of the California mortuary laws and regulations.
And now, without further adieu, let’s fire up the crematory ovens as we step back in time thirty years to sunny Pasadena, California and the Lamb Funeral Home, where in the depths of the ovens something sinister has begun.
In 1929, Charles F. Lamb opened a funeral home in Pasadena, California in a building that resembled a cross between a Spanish mission and a fortress. He decorated the interior with couches, chairs, and various other accoutrements to make mourners feel comfortable. Families were invited to rest as needed as he and his staff moved throughout the home clad in black, passing condolences and caring for both the bereaved and the bereft of life with compassion and dignity. His wife and children helped in the business of burials, and over the years and decades that would follow from taking in that first corpse Charles became a big name in California funerals. His reputation was sterling, even among his bitter rivals in the rough-and-tumble world of mortuary services, and at one point he headed the funeral directors association for the state.
Then Charles retired, leaving the business to his son, Lawrence, who would then pass it on to his daughter Laurieanne and her husband. But, for a time, the business continued as always. Laurieanne had always been her father’s golden child when it came to the care of the those who sought out the Lamb family’s services. She had a rapport with mourners, a way of comforting them, and indeed was so effective at the work that some mourners would return shortly after the funeral of a friend or loved one to start making arrangements for their own. They wanted the Laurieanne Lamb to make sure they were laid to rest peacefully. Can there be a better endorsement?
And then her son, David, joined the family business.
“What difference does it make? They’re dead.”
David Sconce had not been raised in the funeral business. He had veered towards his father’s interests more than his mother’s, and had played football. By all accounts a beefy man with a love for money, when other options ran dry for him his parents decided to bring him into the family business. It was time for him to learn a trade, they believed, and what better business than that of the dead? But David lacked the compassion and the charisma necessary to work with bereaved people. He was described as brash and blunt, difficult to get along with, and sometimes more than a little intimidating.
And so David took over the cremations.
In the 1980’s, cremations were just coming into vogue as an inexpensive option for the funeral of a loved one. Oh, they had always existed in one form or another, dating back really to prehistoric times, but mainly people wanted to bury their loved ones, not burn them. In the 1960’s only 10% of all bodies were cremated, but by the 1980’s it had become a big business, with nearly half of all deceased relatives being barbecued and placed into an urn. And with this new surge in interest came an opportunity for money, an opportunity that David Sconce sniffed out and latched on to…despite the fact the Lamb Funeral Home had only two crematory ovens, and both of them were old and, until now, rarely used.
But still he set out to corner the market, offering cremations for $55 to other funeral homes and undercutting the prices to the public, sending a fleet of trucks all throughout Southern California to pick up bodies and bring them back to the two creaking, ancient cremation ovens in the back of the family funeral home. The ovens went from barely used to running for upwards of 18 hours a day to handle the load of up to a hundred bodies in storage, awaiting their final disposition in David Sconce’s flames.
But cremation alone wasn’t enough to float the business, and other funeral homes began to wonder how David could undercut the competition by so much and not lose money…and the answer is simple.
David Sconce, you see, was a ghoul.
A brief pause for some explanation.
A “Ghoul” is defined by Webster’s dictionary as “a legendary evil being that robs graves and feeds on corpses.” David Sconce certainly fit that definition.
In California at the time, and elsewhere, it was illegal to remove things from corpses. Among these things were any body parts not necessary for removal prior to cremation. Things that are acceptable to remove are medical devices, such as pacemakers, that may explode in the heat of the flames, and a form existed authorizing the crematory to remove exactly those items. David, however, was aware that there was a lucrative, and underserved, market for human organs for research and educational purposes…and the form signed by family members would only need a little re-working to authorize their removal without explicitly informing a bereaved family that anything other than a pacemaker would be removed.
With the help of a lawyer friend, David altered the form to add the word “tissues” before the word “pacemaker” in the authorization form, letting families believe they were only authorizing him to remove any tissue necessary to remove the pacemaker. And, with everything wrapped up in a semi-legal bow, David embarked on his next venture: scooping out eyes, hearts, and brains from the deceased and selling them to researchers throughout the country, having his mom forge the signatures of the next of kin on declaration forms, and making a tidy sum on the side.
On occasion, families would request to see the corpse of their beloved grandparents and be denied. Because Grandpa had no eyes.
And if that wasn’t enough to supplement David’s lifestyle, there was always the gold jar.
David would keep a large jar in the preparation room and, with a pair of pliers, yank gold fillings from the teeth of the deceased, dropping them in the jar and, once it was full, taking it to a jeweller he knew who was willing to overlook the situation in return for a steady supply of gold at a discount. But, as if the organ theft and filling sales weren’t enough, there was yet another black mark to discuss.
The Lamb Funeral Home had only two cremation ovens. And hundreds of bodies.
“I had to break the leg of one body to get it in.”
Cremations are now highly regulated affairs. A single body goes into the oven. That body is burned. The ashes are then removed and strained to remove large pieces of bone, medical pins, etc. The remaining ashes are then marked and stored individually. The ovens are cleaned, and the process can begin again. That’s the way it was supposed to be done.
David Sconce had hundred of bodies, though. And two aged ovens.
Running night and day.
And packed to the brim with the dead.
Before the fire that forced the Lamb Funeral Home to move its crematory services off-site, the record was 18 bodies in the oven at once. They were burned, and the ashes placed in a barrel together. When family members came to pick up the remains of their loved ones, they were handed a box with the ashes of hundreds of people, scooped from the drum and measured out by weight according to the gender of the deceased. 5-7 pounds of ashes for men, 3-4 pounds of ashes for women.
And then his employees broke the record, fitting 38 bodies in a single oven…breaking the leg of one, blocking the chimney, and setting the premises aflame. But the ovens were old, accidents happened, and no investigation began. Instead, David quietly installed crematory ovens in a suburb, licensing the facility as a ceramics shop.
But it wasn’t long until residents noticed the thick black smoke pouring night and day from the chimneys, the rancid oils that streamed from the building into a makeshift pit (the burning fat from the bodies), and the constant comings and goings. Yet authorities were stymied…attempts at inspections were rebuffed by the lack of a warrant when the funeral board came out to visit.
Up until the night an Auschwitz survivor had enough.
The Discovery and Aftermath
One night in 1987, a survivor of Auschwitz called the fire chief and was adamant that was not a ceramics shop. He knew, he said, the smell of burning bodies. And that was enough to spur the fire department into action, stopping by for an administrative inspection of the premises and, upon opening the oven, being greeted with the sight of a wall of bodies…and a partially burned foot falling to the floor in front of the chief.
David Sconce was done.
In the outcome, Sconce and his parents were arrested and tried for their crimes. But under the then-current California regulations, their crimes were…misdemeanors. Sconce himself served 5 years before being released. While he would be placed on lifetime probation for plotting to kill a rival funeral director, it seemed like small justice for the despair he had caused mourners.
The families of the deceased that had been cremated by Sconce would bring a class-action lawsuit against 100 funeral homes that had used his services for cremations, and would settle for approximately $16,000,000.
And…California would rewrite their laws and regulations regarding crematories.
The reason Sconce had escaped notice for so long were the lax laws surrounding the regulation of crematories and the lack of funding for enforcement of those same laws. In the aftermath of Sconce’s capture and conviction, laws were proposed and passed that strengthened the ability of the state to watch over the businesses and inspect the premises.
And as for the Lamb Funeral Home, the business built by Charles Lamb in 1929? It would pass to his two grandsons, who gamely kept it afloat for a year before deciding, as they had years before, that the funeral business was not for them. The license was sacrificed in the 1990’s, and the building in which such desecrations took place still stands empty in Pasadena, the furnaces forever silent.
…But possibly, just possibly, watched over by those denied a final rest.