Does America Have a Cremation Crisis?

It must have seemed like a bad horror film scene when authorities found hundreds of bodies on the grounds of a Georgia crematory. But Americans may find it nearly as disturbing to realize how few laws govern the industry they trust with the remains of their loved ones.

As horrific as the uncovering is of 339 bodies found so far at Ray Brent Marsh's Tri-State Crematory, near Noble, Ga., state officials can at least point to the stricter government regulations covering its crematoriums than most other states have on their books. It is one of only six states, for instance, requiring owners of crematoriums to have a certified funeral directors' license.

"The irony of the situation is, Georgia actually had a reasonably decent regulatory scheme," says Lamar Hankins, president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance in Austin, Texas.

By contrast, nationwide, 10 states have no laws at all regulating crematoriums. And while funeral home directors themselves make most of the arrangements with crematoriums, their national licensing exam has no questions about crematorium operations.

All told, that's not a very high level of oversight for an industry that constitutes a large part of the nation's $14 billion funeral business. About a quarter of all bodies in the United States are cremated, totaling about 600,000 in 1999, according to industry estimates. There are almost 1,500 crematoriums across the country.

"There's no question there needs to be better regulations of cremation," acknowledges Lisa Carlson of the Funeral and Memorial Societies of America, in Vermont. She adds: "I think we're likely to see a flurry of legislative efforts as a result of the situation in Georgia."

Scattering Ashes in the Sun Belt

At a minimum, the Tri-State Crematory case will draw a lot of attention to a fast-growing industry created by Americans' desire to cremate bodies of family or friends, rather than burying them in cemeteries.

Cremations, which began in earnest in this country more than a century ago, are now growing especially popular among the well-off and in rapidly-growing Sun Belt areas where retirees have moved — and thus have fewer community roots that might otherwise compel them to have regular burials in cemeteries.

Among the main reasons individuals cite for using cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America, are the relatively lower expense and less land use compared to burial, and the relative convenience. CANA projects that 50 percent of all bodies will be cremated by the year 2025.

But if the number of cremations is on the increase, the number of government officials checking up on them is not. And if tightening regulations is necessary, enforcing the law, as the Georgia case shows, is another matter.

"It always comes down to the enforcement capabilities," says Tom Snyder, CANA president.

But very few states devote significant resources to monitoring the industry. Georgia has a staff of two checking crematoriums — the same as Texas, which is far larger.

"I'm not saying that's enough for Georgia, but it's certainly not enough for Texas," says Hankins.

Out of Sight

The agency in charge of monitoring crematoriums varies greatly from state to state, too, further complicating the regulatory picture.

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