NEW YORK – It was broken.
That's the excuse Ray Brent Marsh allegedly offered when police asked him why he didn't use his crematory to properly burn as many as 200 bodies in Noble, Ga. The 28-year-old has now been charged with 16 counts of theft-by-deception for accepting money for cremations he never performed. Instead, authorities have found at least 191 corpses stacked like firewood in sheds by the crematorium or left to rot in the woods.
Victims' families, authorities and Americans across the country have been horrified.
But no one has been more shocked than the professional cremators who have listened to the bizarre story that they are holding up as the height of ineptitude.
"I think this is one of the worst situations that's happened in a long time," said Mike Nathe, funeral director of the Bismarck Crematory and Funeral Home in Bismarck, N.D. "This was pure laziness. … His excuse doesn't wash. He just made no effort at all."
People in the cremation business are simply astounded by early reports that Marsh defended his actions by saying his equipment didn't work. Though a crematory can be expensive, running anywhere from $60,000 to $150,000, repairs are often relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain.
"Number one, if your car is broken, you go rent a car or you walk. You don't do what that guy did," Crematory Society of Illinois President Jerry Sullivan said from Chicago. "We had a problem last week that was under $1,000 to get it fixed — and that was a big part and a big problem. $1,000 is not a lot of money. [Or] He could've gone to an operating crematory and given them the money to do it."
Getting someone to look at your crematory unit isn't actually a difficult thing to accomplish, Nathe said.
"There's crematory-repair services around the country constantly calling to see if you need repairs," he said. "They're easily fixable and it's a matter of a phone call. We had a breakdown in June and in less than 24 hours it was up and running again."
There is one major expense that can't be avoided, though. With each cremation, the firebricks that line the oven expand and contract and eventually wear out. The average crematory might need to be completely relined every five years or 500 to 1,000 cremations.
Marsh's crematory, which Sullivan guessed averaged a mere 20 a year — compared to his crematory's 2,000 and Nathe's 300 a year — ought to have barely seen any wear and tear, Sullivan said.
"That machine should last forever," he said.
Sullivan said that Marsh's problems probably arose partly because the cremation business was only a side business for the Georgia man and it didn't bring in enough money to justify the work. While prices range around the country — in North Dakota, where they're relatively rare, they can fetch a funeral home $1,300, whereas Chicago's Sullivan charges anywhere from $195 for subcontracted work to $795 — Marsh could have been making under $200 per job.
"He didn't really do enough business," Sullivan said. "I don't see why he even bothered at all."
Both men agreed that much of the blame rests with the dozens of funeral directors from three states who contracted with Marsh to perform cremations without ever inspecting his facility. And both said the state of Georgia ought to look at tighter regulation of the cremation industry, something state lawmakers are already moving toward to make sure nothing this horrible ever happens to a loved one's remains again.
"I've been a funeral director for 15 years, and I've never heard of anything as gruesome as this," Nathe said. "This is plain being inept. I don't see how he thought he was going to get away with it."