Saturday, July 11, 2009

Cemetery Regulation

Time magazine has a very well written and presented article on the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal. One part stands out, the question of what lessons should we take from these events:

What lessons should be gleaned from this case? Paramount is the need for regulation that the death industry has fiercely resisted. Tom Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, which includes Chicago and Alsip, observes that manicurists and barbers must endure more regulatory hurdles than most cemetery operators, including its managers and groundskeepers. Illinois, like many states, is empowered to protect only the money families invest in burial lots — fees intended for cemeteries' long-term maintenance. In many states, there is no single agency, government or independent, that keeps up-to-date records of how many human bodies are buried or cremated on a cemetery's grounds, or the names of the buried.

I agree, for the most part. Generally I have mixed feelings on on government oversight, it seems that all too often it adds significant taxpayer expense for no apparent benefit (the recent banking meltdown is a prime example of ineffectual oversight, for example). In addition, this is frankly a lousy time to add to the regulatory workload of most states since they're already struggling to make ends meet fiscally! Still, as the Time article points out in many states a barber has to jump through more regulatory hurdles than a cemetery, even though the cemetery is promising its services will last far longer than a barber's.

Generally the funeral services industry has been resistent to regulation. The various organizations which make up the industry have relatively strong lobbyists and the industry as a whole is very profitable. Unfortunately this makes for a situation ripe for mismanagement and sorrow, like at Burr Oaks. The only option may be a strong state regulatory arm unless the funeral services industry as a whole shows itself willing and, more importantly, able to police themselves. In the Burr Oaks case alone there are multiple failures highlighted, including:

lack of oversight - there are no checks in the system of cemetery record keeping. I'm sure there is plenty of oversight in managing the financial matters, but that is not enough. One person should not have sole, unfettered, access to the cemetery records - in an age of cheap copiers, scanners, and computers there is no excuse.

lack of foresight - tying in to the lack of oversight, there appears to be no planning for disaster. Even without nefarious action by the only employee tasked with maintaining and overseeing the records they could be damaged or destroyed by any number of forces including a fire in the building, floods, even insect damage! Once again, there is no excuse for not having copies of the records off-site, whether in an environmentally controlled storage unit, corporate headquarters, or a server somewhere.

A well thought out regulatory body, whether governmental or industry based, would be able to serve not only as a force to enforce laws and regulations, but also as a repository for cemetery records. Such records are invaluable not only for family who may be seeking the grave of a loved one, but also for geneologists, historians, and statisticians. Of course, such a body would also oversee cremations and require similar records - date of cremation, name/location of facility, etc.

Now, as I've mentioned many times previously, the focus of this blog is more on history and preservation rather than legislation. I'm not a part of the funeral industry. Personally I feel that there is room for much improvement, but as a whole most people involved in the industry are there to try to do their best for grieving families. In a case like Burr Oaks there is plenty of blame to go around - as I mentioned earlier some of the comments on the Chicago area news sites indicate that there had been complaints filed about the cemetery that were never followed up. The lack of a single authority makes it very difficult for families to find who to contact and for local authorities to act. When the local law enforcement are deciding how to best use their limited resources, enforcement of cemetery regulation is going to be low on the risk because a) most of the time there is no immediate danger to life and b) they may not know if they are allowed to enforce those regulations! All in all, some sort of reform seems to be needed. A good start would be for the various parts of the industry - funeral directions, cemeteries, and others to work out an industry regulatory body that works - it'd save the states a lot of trouble. Sphere: Related Content

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