After their first pregnancy — twin girls — ended in a stillbirth last week, all Dan and Kristin Christensen wanted was to have the remains cremated and to bring their babies’ ashes home.
Their simple, sorrowful hope has turned into desperation as the Apex couple find themselves caught between their desire to have the babies’ remains cremated together and a state law that prohibits the cremation of more than one set of remains at a time.
In the womb, the babies were an anomaly, sharing a single amniotic sac, Dan Christensen said. When tests revealed that both fetuses had died in utero at 22 weeks, a surgeon removed them on May 22.
Christensen said the family has received conflicting information about whether the fetuses were removed separately or whether their remains were combined as a result of the medical procedure or during handling afterward.
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Either way, he said, the family wants the remains to stay together now.
“They were never separated” in the womb, Christensen said. “They never spent one second apart, and we don’t want them to be apart now.”
The problem, found in North Carolina’s general statutes, is that “the simultaneous cremation of the human remains of more than one person within the same cremation chamber is forbidden.”
So even if pathologists could — or already have — separated the two sets of fetal remains, no funeral home or cremation service in the state can legally cremate them at the same time.
That has left the couple in limbo, with UNC Health Care holding the remains while the family tries to figure out what to do next.
Christensen said he and other members of his family have been frantically calling legislators and funeral industry regulators to find out what options exist.
Stephen Davis, executive director of the N.C. Board of Funeral Service, which governs the operation of North Carolina’s 750 or so funeral homes and about 135 permitted crematory services, said the law is clear on the issue of a joint cremation and that a crematory has no discretion to make exceptions, even in a case such as the Christensens'.
Tanya Marsh, a professor of law at Wake Forest University who has a special interest in funerary law, said the statute most likely was crafted in the interest of protecting consumers from unscrupulous funeral home or crematory operators who, to save money, might have wanted to cremate more than one set of remains at a time.
“It’s been the law in nearly every state for a really long time,” Marsh said. “Once cremation became legal in the United States, one thing people were worried about was, ‘If you are going to burn more than one body at a time, how do we know that the remains we get back are those of our loved one?’”
Marsh said the legislature needs to amend the law.
“The law should not make it harder on people” who have experienced a loss like the Christensens’, she said. “It’s hard enough, and to have these rules telling parents what they can and cannot do just compounds their grief.”
Marsh said the law needs to allow for personal and family preferences, such as the elderly couple who dies near the same time and whose children want to have them cremated together.
Legislators were aware of the issue before Christensen and his family began calling them to ask for help. Last year, four lawmakers, at least three of whom work in the funeral industry, sponsored House Bill 529, which would, among other things, allow the simultaneous cremation of multiple fetuses from the same mother and the same birth, with express written direction. It also would apply to the remains of triplets up to the age of 1 year from the same mother and the same birth.
The bill did not receive a vote. Its sponsors, Rep. James Boles, R-Moore; Rep. Kelly Alexander Jr., D-Mecklenburg; Rep. Howard Hunter III, D-Bertie; and Rep. Brenden Jones, R-Bladen, were unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Dan Christensen said that several legislators told him Tuesday they were holding emergency meetings to try to fast-track the bill and re-introduce it this week.
Christensen said that a local funeral home had offered to donate a burial plot if he and his wife choose to bury the remains, but he said they don’t want a burial, in part because they are not North Carolina natives and they don’t know whether they will always live in the state. They want to have the ashes, and they will decide later whether to scatter all or part of them.
He said that several area funeral homes have offered to do the cremation by taking the babies’ remains to facilities in Virginia, where they said the procedure could be done legally.
“We may move forward with this option soon, just so we can have this nightmare over,” he said.
“We want some solution. It would mean a lot to our family if we could have our wishes granted.”