Consumer advocates are calling for stronger federal oversight of the U.S. cemetery industry after Illinois cemetery workers were accused last month of digging up hundreds of graves and dumping the remains so the burial plots could be resold.
The Burr Oak Cemetery scandal, in which four workers were charged with felonies for allegedly double-stacking hundreds of bodies in an elaborate, four-year scheme that netted them about $300,000, is merely the "tip of the iceberg" when it comes to the chicanery that goes on at U.S. cemeteries, Joshua Slocum, the executive director of the Funeral Consumer Alliance told ABCNews.com.
"There is no culture of accountability in the cemetery industry," Slocum said. "And as awful as it is for these families to realize that their loved one's graves have been disturbed, what goes on beneath the surface that regulators don't hear about, to me, is scandal."
Slocum said every year he hears complaints from consumers nationwide about everything from cemeteries duping them into buying expensive vaults, to slapping them with financial penalties for shopping around for cheaper tombstones, and even selling mausoleum space that was presumably unavailable.
The Burr Oak case, the latest in a string of high-profile scandals to hit the U.S. cemetery industry in recent years, appears to have prompted federal regulators to consider new legislation. A second Chicago-area cemetery is also facing a lawsuit after a family alleged it tried to resell a plot where two relatives are buried. Jeannie Walsh, owner of the Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens South Cemetery denied wrongdoing.
Federal Trade Commission 'Prepared' to Investigate
Members of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection met in Chicago last week and said they would likely propose new legislation to prevent similar cases from happening in the future.
The Federal Trade Commission also said that it's prepared to conduct an investigation of the Burr Oak Cemetery incident.
Lawmakers made similar rumblings about drafting federal legislation to curb cemetery abuse in 2002 after a slew of high-profile allegations slammed the industry. Service Corp. International, the world's largest funeral company, came under fire seven years ago after employees at two of its South Florida cemeteries were accused of illegally disinterring bodies to make room for others, destroying coffins and dumping the remains in nearby wooded areas. The Houston-based company wound up paying affected families $100 million as part of a settlement in a class action lawsuit in 2003.
Also in 2002, Angeles Abbey Memorial Park in Compton, CA was slapped with a $5 million judgment in a class-action lawsuit after plaintiffs proved to a jury that the cemetery staged phony burials in a grassy area only to later bury the bodies under a roadway. Later that year, two Iowa women filed complaints with the Iowa Securities bureau after they discovered the wrong people were buried in plots they owned at Iowa's Atlantic Cemetery.
The cases prompted Congress' investigative arm, the U.S. General Accounting Office, to launch an investigation into the industry's practices and rules in all 50 states. It found that while most states required inspections of funeral homes and crematories, fewer required inspections of cemeteries.
Bob Fells, the general counsel for the Virginia-based International Cemetery, Crematory, and Funeral Association said his organization is open to beefing up regulation to prevent atrocities like the one at Burr Oak. "This is so essential to cemetery operation, the integrity of the gravesite," said Fells, who cautioned that stronger legislation still won't be able to stop criminal activity.
"If somebody wants to walk into a bank and rob it, you probably aren't going to be able to stop them. It's a similar thing with illegal disinterment," said Wells, adding that scandals like the one at Burr Oak are relatively rare.
Funeral Industry Watchdogs
Activist Carolyn Jacobi disagrees. Jacobi, the founder of Eternal Justice Inc., a funeral industry watchdog group, launched her crusade in 1992 after going to visit her father's tomb in Baltimore only to make a horrifying discovery. She found that her father's grave had become severely unkempt with overgrown grass and weeds. And nearby she found a human skull that had been chewed upon by wild animals.
"It's very widespread," added Jacobi, who said she was alerted to a similar problem in Jacksonville, FL last week.
"I have travelled to so many places where I have seen bones, and usually the system will look at you and laugh," said Jacobi, who worked in the industry for close to 20 years as a cemetery manger.
Lisa Carlson, the author of "Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love," said a host of lower profile problems – such as poorly marked graves, shoddy record keeping and maintenance – are symptoms of an industry in dire need of greater oversight.
"The first thing people need to understand is that cemeteries are not well-regulated nationwide," Carlson said. "You can't legislate against criminality, but at least you can catch the rascals. And you stand a better chance of catching the rascals if you've got a well-regulated industry."