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Co-Managing Directors of the Lyken/Newburg Funeral Home, Dr. Dawn Stewart-Lyken and Gordon Lyken are bewildered about why the Ministry of Health’s Central Board of Health has indicated that it will be terminating the business’ licence after almost 100 years in operation.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Stewart-Lyken told the media about a series of events that have since caused the business to secure a lawyer with the aim of ensuring that its legacy is not affected by what it believes is a non-issue.
Based on letters seen by this news entity, in September 2019, an inspection was conducted at the funeral home by two Environmental Health Assistants. Their findings included: strong odour emanating from the preparation area; decomposed bodies kept in the same room as ‘fresh’ bodies; decomposed bodies stored in a canister wrapped in plastic and placed on the floor while the fresh bodies were stored on shelves; and some of the shelves used for storing fresh bodies were in need of repairing.
The report was received at the level of the Ministry of Health and forwarded to the Ministry of Health’s Central Board of Health. It was later insisted that the funeral home needed to have a second refrigerator to prevent cross-contamination of bodies.
As such, the Lyken/Newburg Funeral Home commenced efforts to construct a second refrigerator at the location though it maintained that there was no law that stipulated this was required.
Because of COVID-19, the funeral home has been unable to receive the parts needed for the refrigerator. Mr. Lyken has even visited the United States and was told that the door needed for the refrigerator was in backlog. In December 2020, a provisional license to operate was issued to the funeral home.
In April 2021, another inspection was conducted and it was noted that the recently built concrete structure (second refrigerator) was still incomplete and that parts of the refrigerator were yet to be procured.
Then in May, 2021, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) (ag), Dr. Narine Singh, wrote to Mr. Lyken informing him that a further extension of one month would be given to the business to comply with the recommendations he had made and failure to do so would result in the closure of the facility on June 18, 2021.
Time progressed and, according to Stewart-Lyken, so did issues as it relates to procuring the equipment during the pandemic although efforts are ongoing.
Not long after, in July 2021, the Guyana Police Force (GPF) was instructed to cease using the Lyken/Newburg Funeral Home to store dead bodies on the basis that the Ministry of Health had reported that the facility was not operating in keeping with the required protocols for funeral homes.
According to the Central Board of Health, the funeral home allegedly failed to adhere to sanitary conditions and was not in compliance with the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) and the National Insurance Scheme (NIS). There GPF, therefore, withdrew its multi-year contract with the funeral home.
When the owners of the business read about this in the media, it was the first time that they were made aware of the decision. They were also bewildered about the report because they had documentation to show that they were in right standing with the NIS and GRA.
“The police have neither notified me in writing or contacted me as to this effect,” Stewart-Lyken said. “The Ministry Health is saying to us that the reason we’re not compliant or don’t have a license is because we don’t have a second refrigerator to hold decomposed bodies.”
NO LAW MAKES THIS MANDATORY
Stewart-Lyken went on to explain that the funeral home, over the years, has developed a system whereby decomposed bodies are placed in a canister, sealed and then into a refrigerator. In recent years, Lyken began putting the bodies into body bags for easier transportation by law enforcement to the funeral home. The bodies in the bags are then placed in the canister and in the refrigerator until they are transported to the morgue for postmortem examination. All other bodies are shelved.
She said that she is unaware of the laws in Guyana which stipulate the specific requirement regarding the second refrigerator as stated by the Central Board of Health. In fact, she pointed the media to the portion of Guyana’s Public Health Ordinance of 1934 that references funeral parlour businesses but gives no policy direction regarding the handling of decomposed bodies or the operations of the sector. It only requires funeral parlours to be registered with the Central Board of Health.
As it regards the odour, the Co-Managing Director explained that all dead bodies develop an odour because of decomposition. She also explained that decomposition begins as soon as a person dies and therefore a decomposed body is going to have an odour regardless of where it is placed.
“There is no cross-contamination that’s gonna happen. Yes, when we open the fridge door there will be odour of a decomposed body. So, if I have a second fridge, I will still have that odour of a decomposed body,” said Stewart-Lyken, who was trained in mortuary science.
She added: “I find it very discriminatory that the Board of Health has decided that based on no laws, no requirements as far as funeral homes go regarding decomposed bodies.”
Even after the COVID-19 pandemic, Stewart-Lyken said that research was conducted by the Funeral Home on the best practices which, according to PAHO/WHO, do not differ from dealing with infectious disease bodies.
IS THERE AN UNDERLYING ISSUE?
The GPF has since taken its contract from Lyken to the Memorial Gardens Funeral Home and Crematorium. It should also be noted that the GPF owes Lyken/Newburg Funeral Home over $35 million dollars for past business. The sum was accumulated between 2019 to 2021 and there has been no indication of when it will be cleared.
Stewart-Lyken believes that the overburdening of the issue at hand stems from the Ministry of Health’s Central Board of Health Secretary, Juanita Johnson who Stewart-Lyken believes is directly “victimizing and persecuting“ the funeral home by repeatedly sending inspectors to find issues at the business.
“My question is, if you’re being honest here and not persecuting me, why wouldn’t you say ‘you’re no longer eligible to pick up decomposed bodies’ and why would you write to the police before you notify me of the issues that you’re no longer allowed to deal with decomposed bodies? A letter was sent directly to the police before I was notified…that concerns me,” she said.
The Lyken/Newburg Funeral Home remains in operation as Stewart-Lyken noted that the information it is receiving appears contradictory given that the Ministry of Health recently approved the exportation of a body, prepared by the funeral home, to travel to Trinidad and Tobago.
The Co-Managing Directors of Lyken/Newburg Funeral Home have since commenced redress through the legal route. “My attorney has written to the Attorney General in reference to this and we’re moving ahead to go to the courts in reference to addressing this issue…my attorney is Khemraj Ramjattan and he’s already issued a letter [on July 29] to the Attorney General,” Stewart-Lyken said.
Later on Tuesday, in an interview with the Village Voice News, Minister of Health, Dr. Frank Anthony clarified that it was not the Ministry of Health that made the decision but the Central Board of Health. He said that he is aware that over the years, the Board has been in communication with the funeral home about unsatisfactory operations there and the recent decision was as a result.
“The Central Board of Health would have cited Lyken Funeral Parlor for a number of infractions and they would have sent them repeated warnings and asked them to get these things corrected and, unfortunately, they haven’t corrected it…up to now I don’t think they have done so,” Dr. Anthony said.
He noted that when he heard about the matter, he invited the business owners into his office and the matter was discussed. Dr. Anthony said that he asked for a timeframe within which the business would meet the necessary requirements but he has not received the same.
He said: “From the Ministry’s side, we’re really anxious to resolve these matters but there are things that you have to put in place, there are standards that you have to meet and these are standards that the Central Board of Health would have outlined to them.”
Lyken/Newburg Funeral Home, established in 1922, is the oldest Afro-Guyanese-owned funeral business in Guyana about to mark its 100th anniversary in April 2022. It may also be the oldest Afro-Guyanese-owned business in Guyana and Caribbean.
The funeral home has handled cases related to the Jim Jones massacre, the Lusignan massacre, the Bartica massacre and more. It also kept the remains from the Lindo Creek massacre for five years as investigations continued with no issues when it was time for delivery of the same.
From 1992 to present, the funeral home has been relied upon to store decomposed bodies, especially during periods in time when no other funeral home wanted to accept bodies decomposed to certain levels and also lacked the formal training to do so.
Should the business be shut down, a number of employees will be affected. This is even as the business has done its corporate social responsibility over the years by giving back to the public, supporting Non-Government Organisations and assisting in burying the relatives of persons who could not afford to.
Stewart-Lyken said: “I feel this is personal persecution against Lyken Funeral Home for some unknown reason and I do believe that it has risen to the level that I need to bring it to the attention of the public.”