“Which undertaking is it then that does not seek to make some sense of life and living, dying and the dead?”
The Undertaking: Life Studies in the Dismal Trade, by Thomas Lynch
Working in the funeral business completely changed me, as I expected it would. Yet, I hadn’t prepared myself for how profoundly living in the world of the dead would affect the way I saw this fragile span of time we have here on earth. I gained an extraordinary appreciation for life, earth, and all the creatures it contains. I experienced death through the lens of many different cultures, customs, and religious traditions.
The undertaker is in charge of meeting with families to gather information about the deceased, secure the church and/or provide a chapel, prepare the body, and ultimately conduct the funeral. Our responsibilities are similar to those of a wedding planner. The florists keep busy.
If a family decides not to cremate, the undertaker is left with the responsibility of a helpless body that is the physical representation of a loved one. If there is a service with an open casket, that body needs a lot of preparation before it can be put on display for grieving friends and relatives. Perhaps saying goodbye one last time will help them through the cruel reality of death.
Although I met with families and conducted services occasionally, my area of expertise was embalming, and preparing the remains for viewing. In Mortuary College I was more aligned with the embalming nerds than the students interested in the business aspects of the dead. There was immense satisfaction in presenting a peaceful looking body to the family, especially after a particularly agonizing death. I tried not to look at it as business. I looked at it as art.
I was fortunate during my time in the land of the dead to be surrounded by people who cared. I worked for and alongside good folks who had the utmost respect for the dead bodies and sad families we dealt with daily. When someone compromises those standards, or takes advantage of a family at one of the hardest times of their lives, we tend to take it personally.
For much of the 20th century, Lawrence and Lucille Lamb owned and operated the Lamb Funeral Home on Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena, not far from the stately turn-of-the-century mansions that populate the northern end of the city. Home of the celebrated Rose Bowl, there was an implied sophistication to the clientele. Old California money built and maintained Pasadena.
Sometime in the mid-1970s, Lawrence and Lucille retired from the business, and left the responsibilities of the funeral home to their daughter, Laurieanne, and her husband, Jerry Sconce. In the early years, they made sure the mortuary retained the integrity and trust that Laurieanne’s parents worked so hard to establish. They were active in the community and attended Chamber of Commerce mixers. Families were served. The dead were buried. The reputation of the funeral home remained honorable. That is, until Jerry and Laurieanne decided to hire their son, David.
David Sconce made it clear from the time he was hired that he wasn’t just interested in helping families in their time of need, he intended on getting rich in the process. David was a beefy football player tough guy who wasn’t afraid to bully whoever got in the way of what he wanted – and he wanted to hit gold with this funeral home gig. Lacking the principles and tact necessary to deal with grief-stricken families, David decided to manage the cremation end of the funeral home.
David had an obsessive, creepy interest in organ harvesting, and began looking into expanding the mortuary/crematory to include a tissue-harvesting facility. He figured the dead bodies slated for cremation wouldn’t mind having their organs removed and sold.
David’s buddy, who owned an adult bookstore, helped finance the ghoulish enterprise. They called it Coastal International Eye and Tissue Bank. In order to justify the organ removal, David had the fine print on the funeral home cremation authorization forms covertly altered. Unsuspecting families would unwittingly give consent to have their loved one’s eyes and organs removed before cremation. The deceptive wording on the authorizations became a growing bone of contention among his employees.
To add some clarity as to how this egregious fraud was so easily imposed on customers, one can only read the fine print on a cremation authorization, which is a document that must be signed by the legal next of kin before a body can be cremated. If the deceased had a pacemaker, it must be removed, as these little buggers are known to explode and cause irreparable damage to the inside of the cremation chamber.
David altered the document so it was cleverly worded “to remove tissues, to remove pacemakers.” The anguished families would just assume this alluded to tissue surrounding the pacemaker.
If the deceased had surgical pins or artificial hip joints, these items were also discarded after cremation and not returned to the family with the cremated remains. This was and continues to be noted at the bottom of a California cremation authorization.
In my experience meeting with families to discuss cremation, they usually avoid details about grandpa being cremated. Typically, they just want to know where they need to sign their name as next of kin, and how long it will take until the ashes are ready for them to claim. David took advantage of this understandable avoidance of detail.
The subtle tweak in the cremation authorization allowed the unscrupulous David Sconce free reign to harvest organs. And if this whole operation wasn’t suspect enough, David began wielding a sturdy pair of pliers to extract gold fillings from all the dead mouths awaiting tissue removal. He collected them in a jar until it was filled enough to justify cashing them in. He had a jeweler friend who couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make some easy cash off the dead.
With the organ harvesting and cremation operation in full swing, David continued to look for opportunities to make more money. He undercut the local competition by providing a considerable discount on his cremation services. Soon, he had more bodies coming in than his small facility could handle.
The cremation oven, often called a retort, was designed to cremate one body at a time. Great care was always taken to avoid comingling of remains as the retort was cleaned and prepared for the next body. David didn’t have the time or the inclination to complete the cremation process properly. He began stuffing as many bodies as he could inside the chamber.
When relatives returned to pick up the cremated remains of their loved ones, Dave and crew simply returned a receptacle of cremated remains that came from a 55- gallon drum that served as a mass community grave.
When a couple of local funeral directors began to get suspicious, they confronted David, who denied any funny business. When pressed, David threatened legal action and ordered the morticians off his property. Impatient and compulsive, David paid a couple of his old football buddies to rough up the grumbling funeral directors. They were quickly brought up to speed and told if they kept making trouble for David and his family business, they would be permanently silenced.
In spite of this, suspicion and protest continued among the locals of the industry. How was it possible for David to ethically cremate the influx of dead bodies with the equipment and time available to him? Tim Waters, who owned a rival crematorium, perhaps protested too much. He was beaten for his troubles by David’s goons and would be dead before the end of the year. David Sconce probably poisoned him with oleander, but it was never proven inconclusively.
In 1986, fire consumed the Pasadena Crematorium that was used by the Lamb Funeral Home. There were allegedly 38 bodies loaded into the two furnaces, which were designed to contain only one body each. Somehow avoiding any legal repercussions, David wasted little time securing a much larger facility in Hesperia and opened shop under the name Oscar’s Ceramics, purportedly telling officials he was making tiles for the space shuttle.
Business was fruitful at the new location until neighbors started complaining about the constant smoke and acrid smell at all hours of the day and night. One local, who was an Auschwitz survivor, recognized the smell all too well. There was also a horrendous puddle of oil that was leaking out of the back of the building and onto surrounding properties. The substance was found to be liquefied fat from the overloaded retorts.
The following year, the fire department raided and shut down Oscar’s Ceramics. David’s credible employees in the tissue-harvesting end were finally quitting over the sketchy cremation paperwork that was never corrected. The Lamb Funeral Home gig was up, and the facility was unceremoniously closed. At the end of the day, the Lamb family faced charges for mishandling human remains, fraud concerning prepaid funeral accounts, and discharging hazardous waste.
I’ll save the reader the tedious details of lumbering litigation and lengthy criminal proceedings that went on for years against the Lamb Family. David eventually served less that five years in jail, and the Lamb/Sconce family was never allowed anywhere near the dead for the rest of their lives.
As of 2016, the mortuary at 415 East Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena is an abandoned building that is currently for sale. Another funeral firm operated at the site briefly, but couldn’t seem to shake the horrors committed by the Lamb family. I recently had a look inside the dark interior of the building. Funeral homes are usually strangely attractive to me, but the negative energy and persistent darkness of the rooms in the mid-day light was menacing.
The building where all those bodies were burned under the name Oscar’s Ceramics also remains in an unassuming industrial section of Hesperia.
David once again popped up on the public radar in 1994 after his involvement with a bus coupon scam in Arizona.
In 2013 he was sentenced to 25 years to life for violating a lifelong probation that was part of his original conviction.
Thirty years later, the dead finally got a small measure of deserved retribution.
Braidhill, Kathy Chop Shop (1993)
Pinnacle True Crime Nonfiction
Englade, Ken A Family Business (1992)
St. Marten’s True Crime Library
Lynch, Thomas The Undertaking: Life Studies in the Dismal Trade (1997) W.W. Norton and Company
Johnson, John A Mortuary Tangled in the Macabre: In a scandal that has rocked the state’s funeral industry, three members of an All-American family face trial in Pasadena in a case that promises to tell a ghoulish : tale of organ theft and –perhaps- homicide. December 30, 1988, Los Angeles Times
Johnson, John Ex-Mortician Charged in Oleander Poisoning February 10, 1990, Los Angeles Times
Torres, Vicki Ex-Mortician Pleads Guilty in Bus Coupon Scam: Guilty: David Sconce also faces charges in Pasadena Superior Court of conspiracy to commit murder. June 30, 1994 Los Angeles Times
Uhrich, Kevin Couple Convicted of Misappropriating Funeral Funds : Trial : The wife is found guilty of illegally removing and selling body parts at mortuary; husband is found not guilty of same charges. April 7, 1995 Los Angeles Times
Former Altadena Crematory Owner Sentenced Pasadena News Now May 6, 2013