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.
Thirteen states have a funeral board or crematorium authority in charge, while another 10 rely on the state Department of Health for oversight. But in Kentucky, for instance, the attorney general's office is supposed to monitor crematories, while in Arizona the Real Estate Commission does the honors and in Louisiana the Environmental Quality Department is in charge.
Another factor making oversight tough is that crematoriums, by nature, tend to be tucked into out-of-the-way, hard-to-monitor locations, from industrial zones to rural areas.
"Crematoriums are like prisons," says Snyder. "You need them, but you don't want them in your neighborhood."
That's not the case in some other countries, though — especially in Britain, where cremation first became popular in the 1870s.
"If you look at the British traditions, crematories are on the grounds of cemeteries," notes Carlson. She argues that such an arrangement helps de-mystify the function of crematoriums and helps keep standards high by locating it more or less in public view.
But only one state, Texas, requires that kind of setup. Two other states, Massachusetts and New York, have the majority of their crematoriums on cemetery grounds as well.
Adding to the regulatory problems, it does not take an exorbitant amount of cash, by business standards, to join the industry: Most experts believe it takes between $50,000 and $100,000 to set up a crematorium.
For his part, Snyder says his group would welcome further regulation and has drafted a model of what it thinks the law should look like. In lieu of uniform laws, though, the CANA asks its 1,200 members to sign a Code of Cremation practice stipulating that bodies should be handled with "the greatest care," and offering guidelines on disposing with bodies quickly and cleanly, using a standard system of identification..
Given the current concerns people may have about crematoriums, though, Hankins recommends they ask funeral directors questions about the crematoriums they use. Some basic queries:
How long has the funeral director used the crematorium? How many days does it take to cremate the body? What form of identification does the crematorium use?
Morbid as it may seem, people can also ask to inspect crematories for cleanliness.
Hankins, however, thinks the case in Georgia — where Marsh remains in jail, pending charges — is so unusual that people will not think it represents the industry as a whole.
"This is the most bizarre kind of situation imaginable," he says. "I don't see this as a real [long-term] problem."
ABCNEWS.com's Peter Dizikes and Romy Ribitzky contributed to this report.