Maine lawmakers will soon consider a measure “to require vehicle safety within the funeral industry.”

The bill would change state law to require that platforms installed in cars and trucks used by funeral homes be lower than the front seats, secured to the floor of the vehicle so they can’t become dislodged and require “a functioning system” that ensures nothing within can be jarred loose in an accident.

To understand why it’s on the docket of the Legislature’s Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business Committee, it’s necessary to explore something that happened three days before Thanksgiving in 2017.

Rick Charest Photo provided

On that Monday, Marie Charest took time off from her job at a bank so she could stay home in Winthrop and get some cleaning done before holiday guests arrived.

With her son, Wyatt, a high school junior, at school and her husband, Rick, logging some hours at a part-time job, Charest said she felt happy to have a rare chance to spruce things up unhindered.

As the day grew long, 16-year-old Wyatt took his newly purchased car and headed to an indoor track practice in Augusta. Rick, 59, headed to Auburn to pick up a body for the funeral home that employed him.

Charest said she grew antsy as the evening wore on and nobody came home.

A little before 9 p.m., Wyatt arrived as expected, on time and eager to tell his mother about the sport he’d just started.

Charest listened to him while she texted Rick for the third time to ask what was keeping him. She got no response. It wasn’t like him to be late or to ignore her calls or texts. She felt a rising sense of dread.

“All of a sudden, my front doorbell rings,” she said recently.

“I knew in that instant.”

WRECK ON THE HIGHWAY

After picking up a corpse, Rick Charest drove a Ford Flex transport SUV north on Route 202 toward the funeral home in Winthrop that employed him.

At the crest of a hill in Greene, near the intersection of Daggett Hill Road, he slowed down about 6 p.m. as someone in front of him waited to make a turn.

Police pulled the Ford Flex SUV that Rick Charest of Winthrop was driving back onto the road to haul it away after the fatal wreck on Route 202 in Greene in November 2017.

Behind him, Donald Asselin of Greene, at the wheel of a Hummer, didn’t notice in time to avoid smashing into the back of the SUV at 48 miles per hour, enough to shove the vehicle Charest drove well off the road, down an embankment and into a stand of trees.

Marie Charest said that bad as the wreck was, drivers typically survive that sort of collision, probably a bit worse for wear.

But not that evening.

What happened instead is that the force of the collision drove a wooden platform in the rear of the SUV, designed to hold a casket in place, right through the front seat.

It severed her husband’s spine and cut through an aorta.

Rick Charest died on the spot.

Asselin, 58, suffered only minor injuries. He accepted his penalty in court in 2019, a $2,500 fine and the loss of his driver’s license for two years.

It was, after all, an accident, the kind of thing that sometimes happens to even the best drivers.

MONDAY NIGHT AT HOME

When the doorbell rang, Marie Charest said, Wyatt got up to answer it.

His mother said she froze. People hardly ever ring the bell — and never at night.

She looked out through a little window in the front door and “I could see a trooper’s hat” on the other side. She couldn’t bring herself to open it.

“Why are you here?” she yelled. “Why are you here?”

But she knew.

The trooper eventually got her to let him in, stepping inside with Rick’s boss “and said what he had to say,” words no wife or mother ever wants to hear.

“I was hugging Wyatt and we were crying,” Charest said.

Then she pointed at Rick’s boss.

“You did this,” she told him, though she had no evidence.

“I had a gut feeling,” Charest said, based in part on what she’d heard from her husband over the years.

Relatives were called. The house soon filled with heartbroken family and friends.

There wasn’t much to give thanks for that week.

Rick and Marie Charest with their son, Wyatt, a few years before the 2017 accident that shattered the Winthrop family. Submitted photo

THE MAN WHO DIED

Rick Charest was the sort of guy who cried during movies, feared the dark and thought about becoming a priest as a young man.

His wife said in her eulogy that he gave up on the priesthood when he discovered girls.

“He could be the sweetest, kindest, most considerate and generous man you ever met,” Marie Charest said. “He could also be the meanest, toughest, hardest and the most stubborn SOB on the planet.”

They were married for 20 years and 26 days.

Rick Charest put in two decades as an adult probation officer and followed that with a decade as the director of a prerelease program for inmates, work that required him to make quick decisions that could alter many lives. He didn’t mind.

“Rick had a very strong sense of right and wrong. He did not see gray,” his wife remembered.

“He wasn’t always easy to live with either as a husband or a father,” she said. “Rick was a tough man, but had a deep heart. He knew what was out there in the world. He knew and saw things that we could never imagine. He knew those dangers because he saw evil firsthand.”

“He wanted to protect us from those things and prepare us as best he could,” Marie Charest said.

In 2011, he retired and became “Mr. Mom” to his busy son, allowing his wife to go back to work full time for the first time since Wyatt’s birth.

But he wound up taking a part-time job helping out at the funeral home, which has changed ownership since the accident, to earn a little extra cash and keep himself from getting too housebound.

Always professional, she said, he did the job well.

At his wake, a man showed up from Auburn to tell her that he’d talked that afternoon with Rick when he came to pick up the body of his wife. He told her, she said, how respectful and decent her husband had been.

It was the last time he talked to anyone.

SEEKING JUSTICE

Marie Charest said she wanted to sue her husband’s employer, but soon learned that she couldn’t because workers’ compensation laws bar it unless a company does something that breaks the law.

Since no law prohibited the firm from modifying the SUV to carry a casket, or set a standard for doing so, she had no grounds to head to court.

Wyatt Charest is doing well despite his father’s death, his mother said. Submitted photo

The state Board of Funeral Services, which regulates the industry in Maine, heard her complaint and quickly decided the funeral home was not at fault. It didn’t do anything outside standard industry practice in the state, Charest was told.

New vehicles created for funeral homes are safer than what Charest was driving when he died.

Funeral vehicles sold today are almost entirely created atop a Cadillac XTS chassis that’s specially constructed by General Motors, which imposes rigorous standards on the modifications made to them, according to Jason Cartwright, an operations manager for Armbruster Stageway in Arkansas, a company that’s been in the business for years.

Cartwright said that to build the cars for funeral homes, they add a steel structure atop the chassis, a kind of cage that encompasses the spot for a casket, and then erect a fiberglass shell around them.

The caskets are attached to the floor with chrome steel bolts, he said, and there’s a steel frame partition behind the seats to ensure the safety of the driver and passengers.

Cartwright said he’s seen a lot of repairs from collisions over time and he has “never heard of an instance” where the casket or platform wound up hurting a driver.

Charest said when she ran out of options to hold her husband’s employer responsible, she realized the law itself needed reform.

As it is today, she said, the industry “just slides through everything” and can do whatever it wants.

“Safety is not a concern,” Charest said.

HOPING A LAW CAN HELP

The bill she is pushing, introduced by state Rep. Tavis Hasenfus, a Readfield Democrat, would set basic rules for modifications of funeral industry vehicles.

The idea is “to try to not let this happen again,” she said, and to use her husband’s death to prevent someone else from suffering.

Her husband, she said, “deserved a better death,” one that would have let him go surrounded by family, feeling love and having as many years as possible beforehand.

Instead, “he died on Route 202,” Charest said, alone in someone else’s vehicle, with a casket for company.

A hearing on the proposed bill is slated for 1 p.m. Monday, April 6. Charest is doing her best to round up people to testify, to make sure lawmakers know why this piece of legislation ought to pass.

It’s needed, she said, to make sure nobody else suffers the grief she still feels daily over something that could have been prevented.

“I know the pain of that doorbell ringing,” Charest said. “I know the loss.”


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