Bid to license cemeteries appears to gather support Senate panel indicates support for bill after emotional testimony

February 08, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Efforts to license the operators of for-profit cemeteries appear to be gaining momentum in Annapolis in the wake of widespread consumer complaints and a continuing investigation into ques- tionable burial practices at a cemetery in Laurel.

At an emotional hearing yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee heard testimony on the first of three bills calling for a state board of cemeteries with the power to issue and revoke licenses. And committee members, including Chairman Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore Democrat, indicated support for the bill, which is sponsored by Republican Sen. Martin G. Madden of Clarksville.

As he kept back tears, David Goodman, an Orthodox Jew from Columbia, told riveted legislators that when his 2-year-old daughter, Rachel, died in February 1994, his family began a "nightmare." A cemetery in suburban Maryland refused to erect the upright grave marker required by his faith, then fought his efforts to move Rachel's body to another graveyard.

When he went to the state government and a cemetery trade association to complain, he was told there was nothing they could do about the cemetery. It took seven months -- and more than $700 -- before he was able to bury her elsewhere.

"My daughter Rachel was literally held hostage," Mr. Goodman said. "On her headstone, it's inscribed, 'Soul sweeter than honey.' The people we dealt with in this ordeal were not sweet."

The testimony from Mr. Goodman and Carolyn Jacobi, a self-styled cemetery watchdog, seemed to so move committee members that Devin Doolan, lawyer and lobbyist for the Maryland Free State Cemetery Association, changed his position the bill.

Mr. Doolan and other cemetery owners have opposed state regulation of the industry and signed up to testify against the bill yesterday. But when their turn came, they professed to have no opinion on the legislation -- a stand that drew Mr. Bromwell's ire.

"I can't believe you sit there and listen to this testimony and tell me you have no position on this," Mr. Bromwell said.

Democratic Sen. Arthur Dorman of Prince George's County, the committee vice chairman, referred to an investigation at Maryland National Memorial Park in Laurel, where the Prince George's County state's attorney found two bodies buried in one plot in December. Investigators are examining whether that cemetery, owned by the Hig Corp. of New York City, illegally reburied up to a dozen bodies in unmarked areas.

"With what has happened with Hig in the last three months," Mr. Dorman asked Mr. Doolan, "you're telling me you can't support this?"

Establishing a licensing board is only one of the legislative ideas for increased regulation of the industry. At least seven bills boosting regulation of cemeteries, including three in the House of Delegates and four in the Senate, are expected to be introduced this week.

Maryland's cemetery industry has no specific state regulation and is essentially self-policing, according to industry watchers.

"The abuses that are surfacing in Maryland are typical," says Lee Norrgard, an analyst for the American Association of Retired Persons. "There's only one way to prevent this stuff, and that is to develop an agency which can do inspections of cemeteries and has oversight over where people are buried."

Besides establishing a cemetery board, the bills in Annapolis would require cemeteries to disclose how graveyards are plotted, increase the criminal penalties for grave desecration and require cemeteries to put into a trust all money received for burial goods purchased in advance of death. (Currently, cemeteries only have to put 55 percent of money from these contracts into trust).

In anticipation of the current legislative fight, the Maryland Free State Cemetery Association formed a political action committee in November. Cemetery owners say increased regulation is costly and unnecessary.

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