Ashes to ashes, and sand to sand Arundel residents protest spreading of cremains at beach

October 02, 1998|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Lured by a sweeping, unobstructed view of the Chesapeake Bay at the mouth of the Patapsco River, relatives looking for a dramatic eternal resting place have been littering the beachfront at Venice on the Bay with the cremated ashes of loved ones.

Residents of the little waterfront community don't like it.

Six times in the past six weeks, they say, people have thrown ashes -- a human's cremated remains usually fill a gallon jug -- in the water residents swim in, sometimes while they are swimming.

Residents videotaped one memorial service, recording how the ashes never made it to the water but instead blew back onto the beach and spectators, a real-life copy of a scene from the movie, "The Big Lebowski."

Even more disturbing, residents say, was the time a man carrying a large maroon briefcase pulled out a 10-gallon garbage bag and began spreading ashes, taking two turns up and down the beach as he emptied his load in front of a half-dozen horrified neighbors.

"I can honestly say it's one area I never gave one tiny bit of thought to until now," said Elsie Cullins, secretary of the Venice on the Bay Community Association. "But this really brings it home.

"If these were ashes of my loved ones, to think they were blowing all over the beach and parking lot. It's undignified."

Residents and Anne Arundel County police don't know how to account for the sudden rash of beachside memorial services, but they suspect a nearby funeral home or mortician may be directing survivors to the scenic private beach.

The local crematorium in Pasadena denies any involvement, and so do local funeral homes.

While police have said they will crack down on trespassers if they catch anyone in the act, residents fear that little can be done.

Police officials acknowledge that they aren't eager to handcuff grieving family members they find crying on the beach. And Maryland, unlike most states, has no laws or restrictions on the disposal of cremated remains.

"People always make the statement that they want their ashes spread in this place or that place," said Duane Harvey, director of the Georgia-based National Funeral Directors Association. "But in most states, it's against the law.

"You know there are still some particles intermixed, or bone fragments. A lot of kids on a beach will just pick anything up and put it in their mouth."

The memorial services have galvanized the normally quiet community of mostly two-story cottages and manicured lawns. The last community association meeting drew 32 residents -- usually six or seven senior citizens show up -- eager to voice an outrage fueled by health and privacy worries, as well as concerns of a more spiritual nature.

Pam and Jim Folderauer say one of their neighbors is so distraught over the notion of souls trapped in the sand -- or worse, the parking lot -- she has hired a priest to anoint the beach with holy water.

Other residents worry about their community developing a reputation as creepy or haunted.

Some neighbors, such as Cullins, are shocked by what they see as a cavalier attitude of visitors. The video, for example, shows a group of people breaking into laughter as they are pelted with ashes blowing back at them.

"What kind of family member would have that kind of disrespect for a loved one?" said resident Dawn Dennis. "If they want to be put in water, at least take them out in a boat."

Some states, such as New York and California, require ashes to be spread miles out at sea, never on land. New York requires a saltwater-soluble "sea urn" that can be tossed off a boat and will sink to the bottom before disintegrating.

That has the bonus, said Jo Pettit, director of the Nassau-Suffolk Funeral Directors Association, of "preventing blow-back."

Pasadena Dels. Joan Cadden, a Democrat, and Republican John R. Leopold have asked the state Board of Morticians to set guidelines and said they will consider drafting legislation.

"I hate to regulate everything in the world," Cadden said, "but I personally would not want this going on in my district, much less the state, especially on private beaches."

There will likely be more need for regulation in the future, according to statistics kept by the Cremation Association of North America. An increasing number of people are asking for cremations rather than burials.

Last year in Maryland, almost 8,000 people -- or 20 percent of those who died -- were cremated, up from 11 percent in 1987. The organization expects one in three Marylanders will choose cremation by 2010.

Pam Folderauer worries that too many of them will find their way to the community beach next to her home.

"What if it flew our way and we had dinner all set up?" she said, pointing to her gazebo. "It would be terrible. How can these people think this is OK?"

Police Chief Larry W. Tolliver assured her at a recent community meeting that he would enforce trespass laws.

"It's a dead issue," he said.

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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