Originally created 02/25/03

Cremation industry makes changes



STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga. - It used to be a rarity for family members to ask whether they could watch the cremation of their loved ones' bodies at Wages & Sons Funeral Home in the eastern suburbs of Atlanta.

As owner Bill Wages is quick to point out, though, "That was before Tri-State."

One year after authorities discovered more than 330 corpses scattered throughout Tri-State Crematory in the northwest Georgia community of Noble, Mr. Wages says the cremation industry has undergone many changes.

"Now we have a family at least every other day that wants to watch the cremation," said Mr. Wages, whose DeKalb County business processes more bodies than any other establishment in the state. "Before, we would have someone ask to watch every month, or every other month. It was rare."

The gruesome scene at Tri-State shocked America in February 2002, as authorities found bodies stacked in piles, crammed into vaults and buried in coffins around the property of Ray Brent Marsh, the 29-year-old owner of the business.

Unlike most of Georgia's crematories, Tri-State was exempt from inspection because it did not deal directly with the public. Instead, it performed cremations through contract work with funeral homes. While millions of people tried in vain to figure out why Mr. Marsh had taken money for services he never performed, lawmakers across the country set out to prevent such a tragedy from taking place again.

"We've done everything at the state level that we can do," said state Rep. Mike Snow, whose north Georgia district includes the Tri-State facility.

The Georgia Legislature moved at a lightning-quick pace to pass a bill strengthening crematory regulation rules, while also making it a felony to abandon a corpse.

Lawmakers in Arizona and Illinois mandated that all state crematory operators be licensed, a requirement that used to exist solely in Florida, where cremation rules are considered among the most stringent in the nation.

Even Florida inspectors appeared to tighten their reins after Tri-State, however.

"That was the first time I have ever had them come in and check our licenses since 1981," said Larry Crosby, of the Jacksonville Memory Gardens Funeral Home.

Jack Springer, the director of the Cremation Association of North America, says he is pleased with how the industry has worked to improve itself during the last year.

"It's brought into focus a lot of the things we have been preaching for years, like training the cremation operators," he said. "You have to get a license to be a truck driver and drive a truck that's worth $50,000, but you don't have to get a license to operate a $50,000 cremation machine that holds a priceless body. Why?"

ONLY THREE GEORGIA busi-nesses were using cremation machines, known as retorts, in 1990. Tri-State was among that trio, said John Massey, the chief inspector of funeral homes and crematories in the northern half of Georgia.

By 2002, when the bodies were discovered on the Marsh family compound, there were 47 crematories in the state.

Only two, however - Tri-State and Southern Cremation in Columbia County - were unlicensed because of their status as private contract crematories.

Under the new state laws, which take effect in July, all Georgia crematories will be inspected and licensed by state officials, whether they are open to the public or not.

After more than two decades of traveling the state, Mr. Massey has become well known by the crematory community. His surprise visits seldom raise eyebrows, with many owners allowing him to wander the premises alone.

"Sometimes they'll follow me around, but I think they just want to talk to somebody," said Mr. Massey, who worked for 24 years as a funeral director in Georgia and Florida before joining the Georgia inspection team.

Mr. Massey has never encountered any problems nearing the scope of Tri-State's mishandling of bodies. He made 723 inspections in 2002 and found 23 violations. Most of the crematories he has fined simply failed to meet the state law requiring businesses to offer customers a selection of at least four different models of urns for storing cremated remains. Such an infraction carries a $50 penalty.

Regardless of how beefed up inspection measures become, Mr. Snow said, there is no way to guarantee a law will prevent another crematory tragedy from taking place.

"All the laws in the world are not going to keep people from doing certain things," he said. "Who would have ever thought we would have to create a bill to prevent a funeral home or crematory from scattering human remains?"

CUSTOMERS AT EDO Miller & Sons Funeral Home in Brunswick still talk about Tri-State when they come in to make cremation arrangements.

"I think it made quite an image, so to speak, to the general public," said funeral director Jimmy Durden, who is also the Glynn County coroner. "I can't think of a person who probably didn't read the numerous articles or watch the broadcasts about the situation."

Still, cremation orders haven't diminished.

"I don't think it has slowed down the cremation process as far as families choosing cremation," Mr. Durden said.

In fact, the market for cremation continues to grow, offering families a cheaper alternative to traditional funerals.

Georgia officials already have approved five new retort machines in 2003, and a sixth is likely, Mr. Massey said.

On a national scale, more than 650,000 of the 2.4 million deaths in the United States during 2001 resulted in cremations, according to the Cremation Association of North America.