ICFA Responds to U.S. News & World Report Article About Cemeteries
by Robert M. Fells, Esq., general counsel
The March 11 issue of U.S. News & World Report contained an article titled "Burial Plots: Cemetery Abuses Mean Your Loved Ones May Not Be Resting Where You Think." Claiming that "abuse of the dead is nowhere near as rare" as the Georgia cremation case suggests, the story alleged that a national scandal exists and "authorities say there is no way to even guess how many bodies may be misburied or otherwise mistreated."
In response, the ICFA immediately dispatched a letter to the editor, which states in part, "It is with regret we note that 'Yellow Journalism' is alive and well in the pages of your publication. The article ... juxtaposes some highly anecdotal accounts with some general comments by state regulators and -- presto -- a national scandal is fabricated." Pointing out that the ICFA has been in the vanguard of proactive industry regulation through its Model Guidelines for State Laws and Regulations, the letter concludes, "The difference between our respective publications is that ours advocates solutions, yours promotes fear-mongering. Your readers deserve better than that."
Georgia Cremation Scandal Prompts Consideration of Federal Oversight
In the wake of the Tri-State Crematory scandal in Noble, Georgia, a few members of Congress have called for a review of the effectiveness of state-level regulations and the potential for federal oversight of crematories, funeral homes and cemeteries. The ICFA has responded by supporting an objective investigation to explore incidents of misconduct and has pledged its full support of any congressional probe.
Three years ago, the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, investigated consumer complaints about funeral service and found a low volume of complaints, especially when compared with other professions and industries. Currently, there are two members of Congress requesting that the GAO conduct a new investigation.
Congressman Mark Foley (R-FL) initially wrote to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and Federal Trade Commission Chairman Timothy Muris on December 21 requesting legal opinions and guidance on a highly-publicized class action lawsuit alleging grave desecration in Palm Beach County, Florida. The FTC responded by saying it does not have jurisdiction over the case. The Justice Department has not responded to Foley to date. Subsequently, on March 1, Foley contacted the GAO to request a study of the Florida and Georgia cases "to determine whether existing state laws are adequate to prosecute those responsible. ... If deemed inadequate, I ask the GAO to recommend what role the federal government could play in this matter."
Sen. John Breaux (D-LA), chairman of the Special Committee on Aging, said the committee is considering hearings on the related issues. In a news release, Breaux called for "increased disclosure of funeral practices, including independent observers at cremations and expansion of the so-called 'Funeral Rule.'" As of this writing, the Aging Committee has not announced a date for hearings, but staff has assured the ICFA that the association will be invited to testify should hearings be held. The ICFA participated in Aging Committee hearings on April 10-11, 2000.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) is the third member of Congress to call for a review. In a February 26 letter to the GAO, Dodd stated: "I have been troubled by recent reports of misleading marketing, price gouging, fraud and violations of health standards. ... There are more than 1,600 crematories and nearly 23,000 funeral homes in the United States. The funeral industry provides services to 2 million American families each year. While 90 percent of the funeral homes in America are still independently owned and locally operated, there have nonetheless been significant changes in the industry in recent years." Dodd asked the GAO as part of its report to consider that "given recent changes in the marketplace, should the federal government take a more active role in regulating the funeral industry?" At this point, the GAO has not publicly announced its plans.
The ICFA has publicly supported an impartial and objective inquiry to explore allegations of misconduct. ICFA President Gregory J. Easley, CCE, stated, "Given the emotionally charged atmosphere caused by the Georgia scandal, a fair and impartial investigation at this time will help address the concerns of the public." Easley said that the GAO "is perhaps the best resource for conducting an investigation, given its reputation for objective fact-finding." With reference to the 1999 GAO report on funeral service practices, Easley observed, "We believe that if a similar high standard of objectivity is practiced today, all parties will be satisfied."
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