PASADENA — Before she goes to sleep, Kate Kazue Iannone often thinks of her mother and wonders if she has found any peace in death.
Her mother, Tsuru Shiotani, lived a simple life, and her last wish was to be cremated and returned to Japan, where her ashes could be honored in three separate places: the Nishi Honganji Temple in Kyoto, the family altar in her son's home in Wakayama City and the family plot nearby, where her husband was buried.
But her wish, which seemed simple then, has become an endless source of sorrow, regret and bitterness to the family she left behind.
Because of suspicion surrounding the operators of the Lamb Funeral Home in Pasadena, which handled Shiotani's cremation in November, the family is not sure if the ashes they received were in fact their mother's.
Because of that uncertainty, the temple has refused to accept her remains, the family has stopped the 100 days of ritual that accompany a Buddhist burial, and only a few strands of hair saved by the family are buried in the family plot.
A copper urn of ashes still sits in a relative's home in Wakayama, and no one is sure what to do with it.
"My mother lived a good life," said Iannone, a Pasadena resident. "I just hope she is resting somewhere."
The operators of the funeral home, David Sconce and his parents, Jerry Sconce and Laurieanne Lamb Sconce, were charged on June 5 with 45 misdemeanor and felony counts that included illegally removing body parts, commingling human remains and multiple cremation of corpses.
The Sconces have said they have done nothing wrong and pleaded not guilty to all the charges last week in Pasadena Municipal Court.
But for Iannone and others whose relatives' cremation was handled by the Lamb Funeral Home or the crematoriums it operated, Coastal Cremation Inc. and the Pasadena Crematorium, the suspicion of wrongdoing alone has created doubt and confusion that may never be resolved.
"When I go to bed, I think about my husband and it all flashes back," said Dorothy Kivel of San Gabriel, whose husband's cremation was handled by the Lamb Funeral Home. "I do a lot of crying."
The criminal case against the Sconces began unfolding in January when San Bernardino County authorities searched Oscar Ceramics in Hesperia after neighbors in the area complained about odors emanating from the plant. Inside, investigators found several hundred pounds of unidentified human remains and two cremation chambers.
San Bernardino County authorities believe that David Sconce began burning bodies at the Hesperia facility after a November fire destroyed the Sconces' Pasadena Crematorium in Altadena.
John Gill, executive officer of the state Cemetery Board, said the board had suspected possible illegal activities by the Sconces for more than a year because of the unusually large number of cremations performed. More than 8,000 were performed in 1985, more than double the number done in 1984 and more than any other crematorium in the state.
"During this process, their cremation facility burned down and they still stayed in business," Gill said. "Then we got real suspicious."
Investigators also alleged that David Sconce may have been involved in selling body parts for research and medical purposes without the knowledge of relatives. According to police reports, gold fillings were illegally taken some bodies.
The Sconces' attorney, Roger Diamond, has denied any wrongdoing by the family and said no body parts were taken or cremated without the proper consent from relatives. He said that all cremations were properly done.
"I'm confident the remains belong to their loved ones," he said. "Everything was done in the appropriate way."
But the publicity and the type of allegations against the Sconces have made it impossible for many to lay aside their doubts.
"We would have never known," said Iannone's sister, Lucy Emi Nuno of Pasadena. "Maybe that would have been better."
Nuno and Iannone are among 11 families involved in a class-action civil suit filed in February against the Lamb Funeral Home, the Sconces and others. The suit, filed by San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli, claims the funeral home and its operators committed fraud, negligently misrepresented itself, interfered with human remains and violated its contracts with families, said Richard Brown, the attorney handling the case.
Like others, Nuno said she was shocked and confused when she first heard of the problems in Hesperia and has become increasingly uneasy about her mother's fate.
Her mother died Nov. 9, but by the time the family became suspicious in January, the ashes had already been sent to Japan. They notified relatives there, and the lengthy rituals involved in a Buddhist burial were halted. The family frantically began searching for a few strands of hair that Iannone saved so something could be buried in the family plot.
After months of worry, the family has come to accept that they will not be able to honor their mother's last wish.