- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

The discovery last week of hundreds of unburied corpses near a Georgia crematory has sparked reports of abuses in the funeral industry elsewhere in the country and calls for federal oversight of all funeral vendors.
The incident in Georgia is the most recent in a series of bizarre occurrences:
In Riverside, Calif., prosecutors have charged a crematory owner with removing parts from bodies intended for cremation and selling them to medical research institutions. Michael Francis Brown, 42, owner of Pacific Cremation Care, has pleaded not guilty to 156 felony counts of unlawful mutilation of human remains and embezzlement.
In Hilo, Hawaii, the state Attorney General's Office is investigating accusations that Robert K. Diego, owner of Memorial Mortuary, buried bodies in body bags, rather than in caskets purchased by customers. Mr. Diego denies the charges. In recent weeks, investigators from the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii have used metal detectors to scan 25 graves of persons buried by Memorial Mortuary, whose license to perform funeral and embalming services expired in 1995, an investigator for the Hawaii Attorney General's Office confirmed yesterday.
The investigator, Sterling Lau, said in an interview yesterday that two families who bought caskets from Memorial Mortuary say their loved ones were not in them when they decided to relocate their grave sites to a different cemetery some years later. "They said they found no caskets. One body was in a body bag. The other, relatives said, was on the bare earth," Mr. Lau said.
Lisa Carlson, executive director of the Funeral Consumer Alliance, based in Hinesburg, Vt., said she first learned of the complaints against Mr. Diego more than six months ago.
Mrs. Carlson said she receives about 350 complaints about the funeral industry over an 18-month period and concedes most are not as heinous as those recently reported in Georgia, Hawaii and California. Even so, she says, worst-case scenarios are not all that rare.
"There was a case last year in Hartford, Conn., where the operator of an unlicensed funeral home had bodies rotting in the basement" and a similar case four or five years ago in her own state of Vermont, she said. In both cases, the funeral directors spent burial fees for their own personal use.
Ray Brent Marsh, 28, operator of the Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Ga., the enterprise that triggered the current scrutiny of the funeral business, will have to wait until Monday to find out if he will be granted bond. He was returned yesterday to the Walker County Jail in Lafayette after a bond hearing.
It was one week ago yesterday that the first body was found on Mr. Marsh's property. Before a gag order was imposed yesterday, 283 decaying or mummified bodies which family members believed had been cremated had been found stacked in pits, caskets, sheds and above-ground vaults on the Marsh family property behind his business.
So far, the defendant is charged with 16 counts of theft by deception for taking money for cremations he did not perform. He told FBI investigators his crematorium has been broken for years.
Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson declined to predict the number of bodies that may ultimately be discovered.
No one is suggesting that conditions at Tri-State Crematory are representative of the cremation industry. But Mrs. Carlson says she finds it disturbing that cremation is regulated in only half of all states. Funeral director licenses are not required for crematories that operate in Maryland, Virginia and the District, according to her 1998 book, "Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love."
The Funeral Consumer Alliance supports a rule change sought by Sen. John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat, that would expand the Federal Trade Commission's Funeral Practices Rule. "Now the FTC funeral rule just includes funeral homes. The rule change would add crematories, cemeteries and monument" suppliers, and other third-party funeral-merchandise sellers, said a staffer for the Senate Select Committee on Aging, which Mr. Breaux chairs.
Key tenets of the so-called "Funeral Rule" include provisions requiring those covered by the regulation to make full price disclosures and barring them from misrepresenting what is or is not required by law. It would also require independent observers to be present at every cremation to ensure that persons slated for cremation are, in fact, cremated.
Scott Mjulhauser, spokesman for Mr. Breaux, said the senator is considering hearings on the issue next week.

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