Lobbyist challenges cemetery industry Advocate makes case for tighter regulations

April 02, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

It's 8 a.m. on a too-cold Sunday in a Laurel cemetery, and everyone in Carolyn T. Jacobi's traveling party is half-asleep. But there she is, as sure as taxes and you-know-what, bouncing over grave markers, smiling and forcing a long piece of metal pipe 2, 3, 4 inches into the ground.

"Eureka!" she yells, as the pipe makes solid contact with a casket liner about half a foot down. She's found a shallow grave, a sign that two people are buried in a plot where only one is supposed to be. "Oooooo, yes! Yes! This is better than sex to me."

Ms. Jacobi, who is 57, according to driving records, is a self-styled consumer advocate who believes that Maryland's cemeteries are guilty of extensive consumer fraud. Starting with Laurel's Maryland National Memorial Park, where she used to work, she is pushing authorities to investigate -- and the state legislature to increase regulation of -- the state's graveyards.

Her finest hour came in late February as members of the unincorporated advocacy group she founded in the spring, Eternal Justice Inc., packed a hearing room in Annapolis. They wore black buttons and told personal stories about relatives whose bodies were mishandled, or buried in the wrong graves.

Ms. Jacobi even brought a warped, rotting casket top into the room as an example of careless handling of human remains. (She found it lying in a cemetery on Super Bowl Sunday, a time when the graveyard's staff was sure to be watching television and no one was there to see her).

During her testimony, she said that glass shards had been scattered in front of her driveway and that one of her supporters had received a death threat.

"My determination and focus is to clean up the cemetery industry," Ms. Jacobi says.

"I need legislation to regulate the everyday acts of the cemetery. I shall not come off the mountaintop."

She appears to be winning. Cemetery owners, who in private conversations criticize her and circulate rumors about her past, have been forced to bow to public pressure and support bills calling for a licensing board for cemeteries.

Several passages in the strongest such bill, sponsored by Prince George's Democrat Joan B. Pitkin, were written by Ms. Jacobi.

In the process, Ms. Jacobi, a flamboyant woman who favors colorful hats and often refers to herself in the third person, has become a minor celebrity. She talks to the press in daily conversations, to families who bring concerns about cemeteries to her attention, to Phil Donahue in a recently taped segment of his talk show.

Questions from the past

What she doesn't talk about much is her past in the industry. Ms. Jacobi maintains she knew little about problems with burials at Maryland National Memorial Park -- even though she was executive sales director from 1986 to 1992. During those years, the cemetery was illegally charging interest on so-called "pre-need" contracts for burials purchased in advance of death, according to the state attorney general's office.

Ms. Jacobi and some former employees maintain that she was only a salesperson, and was unfamiliar with goings-on in the graveyard. Still, Ms. Jacobi repeatedly defended the cemetery's practices on local television during her employment there; tapes and transcripts of three appearances show Ms. Jacobi issuing blanket denials to charges about burial practices.

Even some of Ms. Jacobi's closest friends say they didn't know that she pleaded guilty June 3, 1992, to federal income tax evasion. In a plea bargain, she was sentenced to two years' probation and four months' house arrest. Prosecutors alleged that Ms. Jacobi deliberately filled out false income tax returns and underestimated her income.

She says her tax problems resulted from her divorce from circus company owner Rudolph Jacobi; he had always handled her financial matters, and had done a poor job of it.

Whatever the case, the tax problems took a toll.

She left her job and suffered health problems. Friends say they rarely saw her during the next two years. But by 1994, she had re-emerged, with a new home in Silver Spring, a new job teaching business and marketing skills in Gaithersburg, and renewed health and vigor.

"It's remarkable. Carolyn's life had almost fallen apart, " says Koteles Alexander, the Montgomery County lawyer who represented Ms. Jacobi in the tax evasion case. "Now she seems have pulled it together. It's a success story, really."

A change in course

Ms. Jacobi says she had tried to put her career in the cemetery business behind her. But last spring, she went to Mount Auburn Cemetery in southern Baltimore to check on the grave of her father, James Williams, a handyman nicknamed "Hots" who did some work for a North Avenue funeral home.

Instead, Ms. Jacobi found overgrowth, rats and a human skull in a neglected graveyard; the church that maintains the cemetery said it was doing its best to clean it.

Soon after that, she launched Eternal Justice and began working old sources from her cemetery days, looking for leads on discontented families.

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