Funeral home discovers hospice patient was still alive hours after being declared dead

An exterior view of The Mulberry at Waverly nursing home is seen, Monday, June 3, 2024, in Waverly, Neb. A 74-year-old woman was mistakenly pronounced dead at the nursing home Monday morning has died at a Lincoln hospital, according to the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office. (Katy Cowell/Lincoln Journal Star via AP) (Copyright 2024 by AP - All rights reserved.)

OMAHA, Neb. – A Nebraska funeral home discovered that a 74-year-old hospice patient who was declared dead by her nursing home two hours earlier was actually still alive, so workers started CPR and she was rushed to a hospital, where she died hours later.

It's not clear how often incidents such as Monday's happen, but at least two similar ones have been reported at funeral homes in New York and Iowa in the past 18 months.

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The Nebraska woman was in hospice care at the The Mulberry nursing home in the Lincoln suburb of Waverly before she was declared dead Monday morning, according to the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office.

Workers at Butherus Maser & Love Funeral Home noticed she was still breathing just before noon immediately after laying her on the embalming table, Chief Deputy Ben Houchin said.

“I can’t imagine their shock,” he said Tuesday.

The woman was taken to a Lincoln hospital, where she died Monday afternoon.

The sheriff's office is looking into what happened, but Houchin said investigators hadn't found any initial evidence that laws were broken. He said it’s common for nursing homes not to call the sheriff’s department when someone who has been in hospice care dies.

The woman saw her doctor a few days ago, and Houchin said he was willing to sign off on her death certificate because her death was expected. But that hadn't happened before she was found alive.

“I’m sure the nursing home and everybody’s going to be taking a look into what has happened,” said Houchin. “And I’m sure they’ll look and see if new protocols need to be made or if they were all followed.”

A woman who answered the phone at the nursing home Tuesday declined to comment.

In the previous reported incidents, a woman was declared dead prematurely in New York last year just days after an Iowa nursing home was fined $10,000 for doing the same thing.

Jessica Koth, a spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association who has worked in the industry for nearly two decades, said that until last year, she hadn't heard of such incidents occurring. She said the association doesn’t even offer recommended procedures for verifying someone is dead because funeral directors rely on medical professionals to make such calls.

“Usually when someone dies, it’s not like the funeral director is there immediately. There’s usually some time that passes. So surely someone might notice that an error had been made,” she said.

Koth said the day’s events had to be especially hard on the woman’s family.

“I can imagine how difficult it would be for the family as well to go on such an emotional roller-coaster,” she said.

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