Confessions of a Funeral Home Worker

There are allegations of remains being removed without families' permission, an urn discovered in a backhoe bucket, grave desecration, lewd comments about women, a "Ms. Woman" talking doll that satisfies men, and the sexual harassment of a female employee.

Vanessa Hersh, 51, of Bonita Springs has spent two days on the stand and will be back again today, when the third day of her whistleblower trial against Naples Memorial Gardens continues. The civil trial, before Collier Circuit Judge Cynthia Pivacek, is expected to end Friday or Monday.

Hersh, a former sales manager, sued her former employer and the Alderwoods Group Inc. in 2006, alleging she was fired from her job of two years on Feb. 1, 2005, after objecting to the disinterment of remains without permission, damage to the cremation garden, desecration of gravesites, the misplacing of cremated remains, and reporting that a general manager was lewd and was sexually harassing a female employee. She's seeking back pay and monetary damages for gender discrimination, whistleblowing, humiliation, and damage to her reputation.

Hersh, who worked in the industry for 20 years, contends she was fired so she would take the fall for a "reckless" backhoe driver, Tom Seaton, who damaged the gardens during a 2004 renovation project. He ran over the gardens, damaged sidewalks, and separated an urn from a marker after being told a family did not want their daughter's remains moved from beneath an orchid tree. Hersh said she was forced to search for the child's remains with another sales employee, Jeff Cross, after they were separated from a grave marker.

Defense attorneys contend Hersh was fired for violating company policy by digging up that infant's remains, when she knew state law required written authorization. They allege she doctored documents to cover her tracks after forgetting to tell the backhoe driver that family hadn't agreed to have the remains moved.

Hersh testified she wanted to immediately tell the child's family, but was told to put the remains and marker back, "like nothing happened" or "you'll be opening Pandora's box."

"I did this because it was the right thing to do," Hersh said, her voice choking up as she was questioned by her attorney, Darrin Phillips of Naples. "This was someone's daughter's remains. ... Today, I am still glad I did what I did."

She said her supervisor, Chuck Horvath, who was Alderwoods' market sales manager, told her it was the right thing to do.

When she was asked to detail the day she was terminated and told to collect her belongings, she began crying and Phillips gave her a paper towel to dry her eyes. They walked into the hallway to take a short break as the three men and four women on the jury, including an alternate, waited.

"It was very humiliating for me," she later continued, her voice trembling. "I had never been fired in my life. ... I have never been able to get another job in the industry. It ruined my reputation."

She detailed a career working for Service Corporation International, the world's largest funeral home company and Naples Memorial Gardens' current owner, and Alderwoods, the second largest. Her earnings reached a high of $219,000 in 1999 under SCI, and later at $90,000 after she got married and moved to Naples. It dropped to $32,000 after she was terminated and nothing now, forcing her and her retired husband to dip into their savings.

"I felt like they betrayed me," she testified, referring to being blamed for the memorial gardens violations that resulted in Naples Memorial Gardens getting sanctioned by the state. "They blamed the whole cremation gardens fiasco on me. ... It makes me angry."

She maintained that the renovations began before she'd obtained authorizations from roughly 40 families with markers and two already had objected to having remains moved.

She also detailed working with general manager Mike Gendron, whom she accused of sexual harassment and who was fired a day after she was after repeatedly harassing a female employee. She questioned Gendron's hiring and sales practices, noting that his Vermont funeral director and embalmer licenses were revoked for unprofessional conduct and he was on probation in Florida.

She cited his ethics and sales practices, testifying he told customers they were required to have a funeral director present for all cemetery or cremation services so he could charge them $395, when no such requirement existed. She also testified he made up a code to describe customers with big breasts and kept a "Ms. Wonderful" talking doll in his office that satisfied men's desires for the perfect woman.

After roughly 5 1/2 hours, defense attorney Jonathan Fishbane of Naples began his cross-examination, attacking Hersh's testimony and pointing out discrepancies with her earlier depositions. He accused her of being in charge of gathering written authorization for the renovation project, but she denied ever being told to get written authorization, only to call families to obtain permission to move remains. She contended it wasn't her project, that she was in sales, not administration, and that she was just following orders.

Fishbane questioned how she could know written authorization is legally required to disinter remains -- dig up one -- and not know it wasn't required for a full cemetery renovation. "I had never been involved in a project like that," Hersh replied.

"What's the scale got to do with written authorization?" Fishbane demanded.

He questioned the dates she said she took photos of the "anihilation" and "desecration" of the gardens, saying she couldn't prove it was Oct. 11, 2004. But she said jurors would have to take her word, that her computer shows the dates.

Fishbane portrayed her as competitive and jealous, a complainer, someone who wanted Gendron's job, wanted him fireda and who kept tabs on him to document his actions. She denied wanting his job, but admitted she wanted him out of Naples, saying someone more experienced was needed.

Fishbane asked why she didn't rope off the area when the marker was moved and report what had occurred, rather than digging up the remains with Cross.

"I made the decision to do what I did to protect the remains," she said. "... The remains were in danger of being run over by a backhoe."

Fishbane pointed out no maps or notes showed the remains were not to be moved, so the backhoe driver couldn't have known, and numbers on a map denoting markers were not chronological -- suggesting she'd written them in after she realized she was in trouble. She denied that.

Hersh's roughly 2 1/2-hour cross-examination will continue for at least another hour Wednesday, followed by roughly an hour of redirect examination, when Hersh's attorney will rehabilitate any damage to her case in the eyes of jurors. Cross, the sales employee who helped Hersh locate and dig them up the remains, will take the stand afterward. Horvath, who consistently praised Hersh for meeting and exceeding sales quotas, also is slated to testify.

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