Buried Treasurer

The dearly departed's best friend, Steve Sklar makes sure they rest in peace.

May 29, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Steve Sklar's small, windowless office is at one end of a squat state building in downtown Baltimore. To one side of him is the office of the regulator of CPAs and sports agents. To the other is the man overseeing heating and air conditioning contractors.

Elsewhere on the third floor are bureaucrats who monitor foresters, bay pilots, cosmetologists and barbers. Sklar's bailiwick is cemeteries.

Some of those other regulators may experience seasonal peaks of activity. Next week is one for Sklar. Memorial Day inevitably brings more complaints to the Office of Cemetery Oversight, but that is expected on a day when many traditionally visit the departed. Mother's Day, Father's Day and Christmas also spur spikes in complaints. The day after Easter this year, Sklar tallied 26 calls.

Usually the grievances following those holidays involve poor maintenance at grave sites - crooked markers, grass that is too high, weeds infringing on memorials. Most of the time, Sklar is able to resolve problems by speaking to the cemetery. Occasionally, habitual violations lead to fines, but, thanks to Sklar's preference for mediation, such unpleasantness is infrequent.

More serious and more delicate problems do arise. He took a call once when the lowering equipment at a gravesite malfunctioned, dropping the casket and spilling the body in front of the horrified bereaved.

Bodies have been buried in the wrong plots, remains have been discovered above ground, and one time that Sklar remembers, a cemetery threatened to disinter a body for nonpayment. (It didn't.)

Not long ago, Sklar spent five hours on the phone helping a mother work out life insurance red tape so that she could afford to bury the second of her two children to be killed in drug violence in three months. The burial went off the next morning.

Sklar resolves contract disputes, gets erroneous engravings corrected and intervenes in cases of price gouging or when he believes overly aggressive salesmen have taken advantage (as, he said, when one sold a woman with Alzheimer's a plot that was 10 miles from where her late husband was buried.)

He says he gets about 200 "solid" complaints a year, which he doesn't think is very many when you consider the 40,000 deaths in Maryland each year, not to mention innumerable cemetery visits.

His domain includes about 70 commercial cemeteries (not those associated with religious institutions), 45 monument dealers and a smattering of casket makers. He has no authority over funeral homes - the Health Department handles morticians.

He has a secretary, the partial services of a state lawyer and, soon, he hopes, a full-time investigator. He's paid just over $64,000 a year, and, to him, it's the best job he's ever had. "I find it the most professionally and personally satisfying thing I've ever done," he says, "and I've done a lot."

On his desk - beneath some kitschy miniature tombstones - is a pile of letters, some handwritten, from satisfied customers. "Thank you for providing such a great service, which is so needed in time of personal grief," wrote one who had just buried a sister. Another wrote that without Sklar's intervention on the pricing of a memorial, "I would have been one frustrated, unhappy, poorer user of cemetery services."

A slight, subdued and owlish man of 62, Sklar regards his work in resolving cemetery complaints as something akin to grief counseling. "These conflicts do not allow closure of the mourning for this loved one. People will not get over the grief until this part is resolved."

Sees both sides

His sympathies extend as well to those in what he calls "the death-care industry." "When people have strong grief emotions, sometimes flavored by strong guilt over their relationship with the deceased, sometimes they take it out on the nearest person at hand, like the people at the cemetery. It's not that they're bad people; it's that they're in anguish."

Sklar is clearly inclined toward empathy, which does not mean he is by nature funereal or lacking in a sense of humor. A side benefit of the job is that it satifies a certain appetite for puns. (His office motto: "We put everybody in their place.") In his spare time these days, Sklar and his wife, Susan, devout Jews, are trying to market a line of jelly beans called "Maccabeans."

There is no direct path to cemetery regulator - the job didn't even exist until 1997 - but Sklar's background didn't make it an obvious career choice. As a young man, he was something of a wunderkind in the General Assembly, in which his father Albert had also served before becoming the chairman of the state Public Service Commission and then a Baltimore City judge. A Wharton grad fresh out of the University of Maryland Law School, the younger Sklar got himself appointed to the House of Delegates in 1969, becoming something of a political trivia answer. He replaced Marvin Mandel, who was elevated from House Speaker to governor when Spiro Agnew became vice president.

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