- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The cement liners of the grave sites were smashed open and their contents moved and dumped into holes in empty areas of Illinois’ Burr Oak Cemetery. Empty grave sites were then resold to new customers, until 2009 when workers discovered what was going on.

In Georgia, hundreds of bodies thought to have been cremated were found discarded on the property of Tri County Crematorium back in 2002. Some families found that they had actually been given cement dust instead of ashes.

Allegations of other misconduct also have surfaced recently in other areas of Georgia, such as at Melwood Cemetery, as well as in California at Eden Memorial Park.

The ramifications of these cases have extended beyond the families of those buried, with politicians seeking legislation on Capitol Hill to prevent future violations and, in the Burr Oak case, becoming an issue in the Illinois gubernatorial race.

Gov. Pat Quinn has accused his Democratic primary rival, state Comptroller Dan Hynes, of ignoring the desecration of human remains. Mr. Hynes responded that the governor was exploiting a tragedy to distract from ads criticizing Mr. Quinn. The primary is Tuesday.

On the federal legislative front, Rep. Bobby L. Rush, Illinois Democrat, proposed the Bereaved Consumers Bill of Rights Act last September. The bill would prohibit deceptive acts by funeral services and protect consumers from misrepresentations.

“What we have tried to accomplish through this bill is to establish a baseline of federal minimums and standards,” Mr. Rush said. “We would hope that all states would have these minimums on their books, and in their own statutes, as a means to protect bereaved consumers.”

The bill, currently in the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection, was reviewed at a hearing last week. It would require providers of funeral services and funeral goods to disclose accurate pricing information regarding all aspects of funeral costs, and all contracts must be clearly written, stating all merchandise and services.

The bill also requires cemeteries to retain all records and make them available to federal, state and local governments.

Industry leaders, however, wonder if that regulation is something better handled on the state rather than federal level.

Paul Elvig, former president of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, does not oppose Mr. Rush’s bill, but said his concern was over unintended consequences.

Mr. Elvig, who testified before the subcommittee, said that incidents cited in the bill in Florida, Georgia and Illinois were properly addressed by the states and that federal involvement in the issue was not necessary.

States, he said, are better equipped to handle their differing circumstances, and he worries about fines that would be imposed on cemeteries for violating the terms of the bill.

“Typically, under an FTC trade rule, we understand that violations are statutorily imposed at the rate of $11,000 per violation,” he said. “Frankly, this amount could bankrupt a number of smaller cemeteries that operate with volunteer staffs and possibly one or two paid employees.”

Timothy Robinson, legislative counsel for Mr. Rush’s subcommittee, said some states have robust laws and regulations to protect consumers from deceptive practices of funeral homes, cemeteries and crematoriums, while others’ are weak.

“We are very sensitive to the impact that this could have on small cemeteries,” Mr. Robinson said. “We are not establishing ceilings; we are establishing floors in key areas.”

Also testifying last week before the subcommittee was Patricia Brown Holmes, whose father and brother are buried in Burr Oak Cemetery. Miss Holmes is on the Cemetery Oversight Task Force in Illinois, which was formed in the wake of the Burr Oak incident. She touted the group’s success in enacting legislation on the state level to address the problems in Illinois.

The Cemetery Oversight Act of Illinois was signed into law on Jan. 17.

“It was the primary finding of the task force that without legislative reform and increased oversight of cemetery operations, the events that occurred at Burr Oak Cemetery and other cemeteries in the state of Illinois would continue to occur, and the same types of tragic stories the public has already heard too many times would continue to be told,” Miss Holmes said.

Based on recommendations from the task force, the Illinois law consolidates regulation of funeral and burial practices into one agency.

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