The Colorado Funeral Home Owner Who Had A Sickening Side Hustle

There are lots of jobs that come with a tremendous amount of responsibility. From teachers to police officers, soldiers to lawyers, and everything in between, everyone has to manage a certain amount of pressure in their professional life. We all have our important roles to play in making this remarkable world of ours turn.

For a funeral director, this is certainly true. It's quite the emotional honor to prepare somebody's loved ones to be laid to rest and to comfort and support those who wish to say goodbye, whatever their wishes may be. Sadly, where there's a responsibility, where there's trust, there are those who are willing to betray it for profit. Greed is an all-too-common human trait, and it seems there are no tragic circumstances that can't be plumbed for profit. It seems that the owner of a funeral home in Colorado took these concepts to awful new lows when she indulged in the selling of precious body parts.

A terrible history of body snatching

Bodies have long been sickeningly utilized for money. Per The National Archives, the British Anatomy Act of 1832 was a step to make it legal for doctors and others in the field to dissect bodies. This was necessary because, per the act, "a Knowledge of the Causes and Nature of sundry Diseases which affect the Body, and of the best Methods of treating and curing such Diseases, and of healing and repairing ... cannot be acquired without the Aid of Anatomical Examination." The legislation was deemed necessary, it goes on, because people had previously been killed for their bodies: "For the single Object of selling for such Purposes the Bodies of the Persons so murdered."

Around the time of this act, doctors, soon-to-be doctors, and other professionals had very little legitimate access to human bodies (via Britannica). In the U.K. as well as the U.S., the only source was criminal cadavers retrieved after their grisly deaths. This led, as the act suggests, to a terrible secret trade in human bodies. The infamous William Burke and William Hare, The University of Edinburgh reports, brought bodies to Dr. Robert Knox, who taught students how our wonderful, intriguing, often gross bodies worked. He did this the practical way: through dissection. In a period of around a year beginning in 1827, the outlet states the pair of killers murdered 16 people, and perhaps more.

For centuries, then, bodies have been regarded by some as "worth" more than lives.

Megan Hess' Sunset Mesa funeral home

Even today, the terrible illegal organ trade continues. The pace of this awful practice is terrifying: According to The Guardian, in May 2012, the World Health Organization estimated that 10,000 operations using such illegal organs were performed every year. As the WHO's Luc Noel put it, "There is a growing need for transplants and big profits to be made. ... It's a constant struggle. The stakes are so big, the profit that can be made so huge."

Per The Guardian, a kidney to those in need of such surgery can be worth $200,000 or so. There is, tragically, a lot of money to be made — if you've no respect for the law, or human life, or a shred of compassion. In January 2023, Reuters shared the story of Colorado's Megan Hess. With her company, Donor Services, and her funeral home, Sunset Mesa, Hess was in a tremendous position of trust in the community of Montrose. Horribly, she betrayed this trust and embarked on a terrible side hustle.

Mother and daughter's crimes

Millions of people draw comfort from visiting a grave or owning the ashes of a deceased person. It's a way of ensuring that those who were so close to us remain that way. Cremation, in particular, is increasing in popularity. According to the National Funeral Directors Association in July 2019, cremation had been outpacing burial to such a degree that, by 2040, 78.7 percent of people in the United States are expected to choose cremation. The report adds that, across the nation, "approximately one-third of funeral homes operate their own crematories." This was a service that many of Megan Hess' clients came to her for. Sadly, per CBS News, it was not provided in some cases. Even worse, according to the BBC, Hess and her mother, Shirly Koch, deceived medical companies and grieving families alike until their awful schemes were discovered.

As Leonard Carollo of the FBI put it (per the BBC), "Instead of offering guidance, these greedy women betrayed the trust of hundreds of victims and mutilated their loved ones." In some cases, the outlet goes on, clients would be told that if they agreed to donate the organs of their loved ones, the service would be on the house. What they did not know was that some such organs would then be sold — in eerily Burke and Hare-esque fashion — to organizations that could make use of them (but which did not know of their diabolical origins).

Terrible truths at the trial

The New York Post offers further appalling details from the case, with Megan Hess pleading guilty to her awful fraud in July 2022. Hess and her mother had given clients incomplete ashes in some cases and combined them with those of strangers (or even with other substances) in others. Needless to say, the horrors of their crimes left a string of devastated people behind. The Denver Post (via BBC) shared the words of horrified daughter Nancy Overhoff, just one person who had entrusted the duo with those who were most precious to them. Overhoff's victim statement was simple but tremendously powerful, and it lays bare the sheer depths of these crimes: "When Megan stole my mom's heart, she broke mine."

At the conclusion of the trial in January 2023, CBS News states that Shirly Koch was sentenced to 15 years in jail and Hess to the weightiest punishment available: 20 years. With the two former businesses operating from the same building as they did, it's clear that the pair seemed to think that they had devised a very convenient and lucrative side hustle. As ghoulish as their deeds were, though, it's a tragic fact that they aren't without precedent.

A change in the law

The body snatchers of the 1800s and later are sometimes seen as a terrible and unscrupulous relic of the past. Some may have set up elaborate schemes to remove bodies from cemeteries without being detected and established contacts with just the right medical professionals who would not implicate them (or themselves) in such crimes. Others may have simply been sneaky murderers. This same terrible, opportunistic spirit sadly lives on today.

In December 2021, CBS News reported that, in response to the escalating accusations against Megan Hess and another Colorado funeral home owner, Shannon Kent, state representatives started to seek a change in the law. In Colorado at the time of the report, formal criminal charges against a funeral home and its operators were necessary for any search to be untaken. In the crucial time this would take, of course, more clients would suffer in this unimaginable way.

One such representative, Matt Soper, said (per CBS News), "Our state agencies that are responsible for this type of oversight and this type of regulation were powerless in the face of egregious actions by these funeral home owners."