The basement room where funeral home director Peter Stefan stored nine unclaimed, decomposing bodies which have since been removed. (Kim Tunnicliffe/WBZ NewsRadio)
WORCESTER, Mass. (WBZ NewsRadio) — He's made a name for himself for taking the abandoned and unclaimed bodies nobody else wants—but now a Worcester funeral home director is under investigation after several of those bodies were found decomposing in his basement.
Peter Stefan, director of the Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlor, told WBZ NewsRadio's Kim Tunnicliffe he has always felt he had a moral obligation to take in the bodies when others won't.
"People shouldn't be left behind—disrespectful," Stefan said. "I won't leave anybody behind. I never have."
But the city has opened a probe into the way he was storing nine such bodies in the funeral home's basement, which was measured at 65 degrees when it should've been cooled to 39 degrees.
"The room was air conditioned, it wasn't cold enough," Stefan said. "It should've been down to 39 or 40 degrees, but we ran out of room. I have a cooler here that holds three or four, but everything we had was being used."
Fluids from the bodies leaked onto the floor, creating what city health officials called a "horrible stench." They launched an investigation after neighbors complained about the smell.
Stefan admits the situation got out of control.
"It was just circumstances that got ahead of us, it's not gonna happen again," he said. "With the help of the state and the Worcester Board of Health, we got it under control. It got out of control for us because there were too many [bodies]."
He has faced criticism for not embalming the bodies, but said that wasn't possible due to the state of decomposition some of the bodies were in when he picked them up.
"We've been treating the remains as best we can, but you can't really embalm remains that have been deceased that long," Stefan said. "There's basically treatment that you have, but going through the summer, it's tough to do."
Some of the nine bodies came from UMass Memorial Medical Center, where Stefan routinely picks up unclaimed bodies.
In 2013, Stefan also gained notoriety—and stirred controversy—for burying Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. In 2015, he also agreed to handle the burial of Bella Bond, the four-year-old girl known at the time as "baby doe" after her then-unidentified remains were found washed up on Deer Island.
Though Stefan believes he was trying to do the right thing, he says his facility was simply not big enough. City officials say that, if he accepted the bodies, he had a legal responsibility to dispose of them properly.
Dr. Michael Hirsh, the Medical Director of the Worcester Department of Public Health, said he believes that Stefan was waiting for an ordnance to pass that would allow for the unclaimed bodies to be cremated.
"I think what Mr. Stefan was hoping was that any day, this new ordnance would come out that would allow him to cremate the body, and that process didn't happen as fast as he thought," Dr. Hirsh said. "So, he ended up really overflowing his facility with unclaimed bodies that were really in a bad state of decomposition."
Dr. Hirsh said the city has appreciated Stefan's tendency to take unclaimed bodies more than any other funeral home in the city—but said the assumption was that he was doing so while following proper procedures, rules, and regulations.
"We feel that the Graham-Putnam Mortuary decided on their own to keep too many of these around in the hope that once the ordnance was finalized, they could just do the cremation en masse, and that was bad judgement, to keep these bodies around for as long as they did," Dr. Hirsh said.
Stefan now has an old shipping container in his parking lot which he's refrigerating. He's hoping the City of Worcester will allow him to store bodies there.
"It's going to be a refrigerated cooler that will hold 10-15 abandoned people," Stefan said. "Any funeral home that wants to use it, the city can use it at no charge."
WBZ NewsRadio's Kim Tunnicliffe (@KimWBZ) reports