Cemetery owners now support regulatory board Trade group had called such a panel unnecessary

February 17, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

In an apparent reversal, Maryland cemetery owners say they will support legislative efforts to set up a state board to regulate and license graveyard managers.

At a meeting Monday, directors of the cemetery trade group, the Maryland Free State Cemetery Association, resolved to cooperate with legislators in establishing a board. They did not endorse any of three bills that have been introduced in Annapolis, but said they support the idea.

"We're going to go along with a regulatory board," said Geoffrey Freeman, who runs Cedar Lawn Cemetery in Hagerstown. "We want the ability to actually punish cemetery owners who do wrong, and give fines."

The decision to back a board comes after public complaints about several cemeteries and a criminal investigation of a cemetery in Laurel. Already, investigators there have found two bodies buried in a grave where only one was supposed to be.

For years, cemetery owners had argued in meetings with legislators and in interviews that a state board of cemeteries would be costly and unnecessary.

Many owners say that while their opinion has not changed, they have concluded that opposition to a board would be futile. During a hearing on one of the bills before the Senate Finance committee this month, several legislators -- including committee chairman Thomas L. Bromwell -- vocally supported the idea.

Instead, the cemetery owners said they will fight to ensure that they "have a strong presence" on the state board of cemeteries. The current bills call for a seven-member state board, which would include three representatives from the industry.

Mr. Doolan said the association's position did not constitute a reversal, because the group had never before taken a formal position on the idea of a cemeteries board. But boosters of cemetery regulation yesterday called the association's new position a victory.

"I applaud them for it," said Del. Joan Pitkin, a Prince George's Democrat who is sponsoring one of the three bills. "I'm really glad that the cemeteries are becoming sensitive to the needs of consumers at this very vulnerable time."

"I'm elated, but it didn't come as a surprise because of the amount of evidence that has surfaced and will be surfacing of abuses in the industry," said Carolyn T. Jacobi, a Silver Spring woman who formed a group, Eternal Justice Inc., to push for greater cemetery regulation in the state. "The writing was on the wall."

Maryland is one of 15 states without a board to regulate cemeteries, said Lee Norrgard, a consumer protection analyst at the American Association of Retired Persons.

The cemetery owners also said they would not stand in the way of a bill, offered by Del. Dan K. Morhaim, to establish a state task force to examine all aspects of Maryland's funeral and burial industries. Mr. Morhaim has expressed concern that funerals and burials cost too much.

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