Relatives testify at cemetery hearing

Testimony: cemeteries need federal oversight
July 27, 2009 4:58:27 PM PDT
Families with relatives at Burr Oak Cemetery gave emotional and sometimes angry testimony during a congressional hearing on Monday in Chicago on accusations that graves were dug up to re-sell cemetery plots.The hearings were called by Congressman Bobby Rush. The cemetery in southwest suburban Alsip is in his district.

The fundamental question posed by Congressman Rush at the beginning of Monday's hearing was, "should there be federal operating standards for cemeteries?"

The congressman has already decided there should be and that what happened at Burr Oak makes a compelling case for government oversight.

"My mother struggled to put a customized headstone for me and my brother and my kids' kids so we'd know where our families lay," said Roxie Williams.

At a young age, Roxie Williams lost her father. He was buried at Burr Oak Cemetery. Where his body is now, Roxie does not know. But she and others with relatives laid to rest at Burr Oak want all to know the depth of their agony and anger.

"Is nothing sacred and why? And is anybody going to do anything about it," said Pastor Don Grayson.

Members of this congressional subcommittee believe that the crimes at Burr Oak may not be an aberration and that the best way to police cemetery operations is through federal regulation.

"There needs to be a culture of accountability that is woefully lacking," said Joshua Slocum, Funeral Consumers Alliance.

Ten states - Illinois being one - have the authority for some level of cemetery oversight, but critics say it's minimal and ineffective.

Members of the subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection made clear on Monday that they want federal standards for cemetery record-keeping and burial care.

"We do not need federal oversight," said Harvey Lapin, Il. Cemetery and Funeral Home Association.

Opponents say the vast majority of cemeteries nationwide are non-profit or church-operated beyond the legal scope of federal oversight and that placing national rules on the rest would be unfair.

"And it would increase prices. There's no question about it because they'd be regulated and the others wouldn't," said Lapin.

How federal oversight of cemeteries would be structured and what it could cost are unknowns, but subcommittee members are convinced in the aftermath of Burr Oak that the status quo has a far greater cost.

"Cemeteries are going national, in terms of their ownership, that it makes sense that there be some federal standards," said Cong. Jan Schakowsky, D-Chicago, Northern Suburbs.

"Lobbyists won't rule the day. Consumers will. We're going to make sure there's reasonable and responsible federal action," said Congressman Rush.

Seven years ago, after workers at a crematorium in Georgia were accused of dumping bodies, there was a call for federal oversight of cemeteries and crematoria. It did not happen, and critics say it shouldn't now because cemetery regulations are sufficient enough if they're simply enforced.


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