The ghastly discovery of scores of bodies discarded in the woods near a Georgia crematory has illustrated what consumer advocates say is a lack of state regulation and oversight of the industry.
Ten states have no laws at all, and most of those that do -- including Georgia -- lack adequate enforcement, consumer advocates say.
"Other than EPA emissions regulations, crematories are seriously under-regulated," said Lisa Carlson, executive director of Funeral Consumers Alliance, based in Hinesburg, Vt. "It's clear something needs to be done."
Georgia lawmakers moved quickly this week to tighten rules for crematories and treatment of the dead after rotting corpses were found near the Tri-State Crematory in Nobel. The bodies had been taken there for cremation but were left in garages, vaults or the woods.
Ray Brent Marsh, the operator, is charged with theft by deception for allegedly taking payment for cremations not performed and giving families wood chips or cement powder instead of ashes.
One proposed law in Georgia would close a loophole that allowed crematories like Tri-State that do not open to the public for memorial services to operate without a license or state inspections. The bill would also broaden the definition of mistreating the dead to include abandoning or throwing away a body intended for burial or cremation.
The Georgia case has highlighted the disparities in state laws at a time when cremations are on the rise. Twenty-five percent of the 2.3 million people who died in the United States in 2000 were cremated, according to the Cremation Association of North America. The group estimates that figure will double by 2025.
Twenty-three states license their crematories, according to the association.
Florida and California have the most comprehensive laws because they require inspections, according to association executive director Jack Springer. He said California also requires that crematory operators pass training programs.
In most of New England and Texas, state laws require crematories to be located at not-for-profit cemeteries.
"In New England, where the majority of crematories are on cemetery grounds, you're not running into the problems like in Georgia," Carlson said. "It's much more out in the open. It's not hidden in some remote countryside location or warehouse."
Ten states -- Alabama, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia -- have no regulations, Carlson said.
Also, unlike funeral directors, crematory operators are not subject to Federal Trade Commission consumer protection laws mandating disclosure of consumer rights in writing. Carlson's group, which has 120 branches in 44 states, wants the same rules applied to crematory operators.
Lawmakers in several states have said there need to be stricter rules for punishing negligent crematories. In Michigan, for example, a lawmaker who is also a funeral director wants to make negligent disposal of human remains punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine. Such an act is not currently a crime in Michigan.
Springer said problems of the sort seen in Georgia are rooted in the subcontracting system. In the Georgia case, about 25 to 30 funeral homes in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama sent bodies to Tri-State for cremation instead of doing it themselves.
"He said he was doing it. He wasn't doing it. Nobody checked him," Springer said. "What we need is people to be trained and be responsible for people they hire to do their cremations."
Bob Fells, general counsel of the International Cemetery and Funeral Association, based in Reston, Va., said most states have good guidelines but do not enforce them.
Congress has not debated crematory legislation in eight years. Fells, whose group has 6,000 members and lobbies on Capitol Hill, said he hopes the federal government stays out of the issue.
"We've always found that state regulation is more efficient and effective than federal oversight," he said. "As bad as it is, the Georgia authorities are there on the scene."
In Massachusetts, where there are 15 crematories, a state medical examiner must first visit the facility and inspect paperwork and view the body.
"What they've done -- literally throwing bodies out back -- that couldn't happen in a cemetery in Massachusetts," said Bob Keller, assistant director of sales at Cambridge's Mount Auburn Cemetery, the final resting place of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
Still, Keller acknowledged there is no practical way for families to be positive the remains they are given are those of their loved ones.
"That's a matter of trust," he said.