IT'S ONE OF those tragedies that sounds totally preposterous until it becomes incomprehensibly real: more than 149 corpses found scattered around a rundown crematory in Georgia.
What happened in Georgia is an anomaly; most of the nation's commercial crematories operate without complaint. But as this horrifying turn of events proves, that doesn't mean the industry is problem-free. A decade ago, for example, the decaying corpse of a former Burbank, Calif., mayor was found in a refrigeration compartment -- four months after his widow had received what purportedly were his ashes.
Could this happen in Maryland?
Absolutely. Nothing here protects consumers against similar foul-ups or desecration of human dignity. The cremation trade is the only sector of the commercial death-care industry that is not regulated by the state. Operators of the state's 23 crematories are not licensed; they only have to comply with air quality rules.
Frankly, that makes no sense.
In Maryland, as in other parts of the nation, cremation has become an increasingly popular alternative to burial. In a state where an estimated 44,000 people will die this year, it accounts for about 25 percent of final arrangements.
That percentage is expected to double by 2050.
Unfortunately, repeated attempts to extend consumer protection to include cremation have been defeated in Annapolis.
Last year, the House of Delegates passed a crematory licensing bill, but the Senate rejected it. This year, the Senate Finance Committee rejected a similar bill Feb. 7, contending there was no need for regulation.
An identical House bill, No. 326, will be heard before the Economic Matters Committee on March 7. Its proponents argue that Marylanders must be protected against crematory irregularities. They point to the macabre events in Georgia as a warning sign.
We agree -- but also fear this particular bill may take Maryland to the point of over-regulating crematories.
No reasonable person could argue against such protective clauses in House Bill 326 as its requirement that each person's remains be cremated separately so as to lessen the possibility of mix-ups. The same is true of provisions that require cremations to be completed within a certain time period and that establish a procedure for disposing of unclaimed ashes, as well as language that protects relatives of the deceased in case the crematory becomes insolvent. The bill would also require crematory operators to remove pacemakers from corpses to avert explosions.
But the 50-page crematory bill goes further -- to the point of overreaching. It says that crematory operators -- and affiliated funeral homes and cemeteries -- can't require that a body be placed in a casket before cremation.
This language is in direct response to a funeral industry campaign to convince consumers to think of cremation not as a low-cost burial alternative, but as a comprehensive "package" that includes embalming and a viewing in a casket before incineration. The reason for this campaign is clear: Casket sales ring up some of the highest profits for funeral homes.
Distasteful as the sales pitch might be, it's not necessarily something the state ought to be regulating. The market -- which includes funeral homes and cemeteries that don't require full burial services with a cremation -- should be able to stem the funeral industry's predilection toward selling the most expensive services. As long as consumers have options, it ought not be the role of the state to step in to protect them from being sweet-talked into services they may neither want nor need.
However, if, as some have suggested, funeral directors indicate to customers that extras such as fancy caskets or embalming are mandated by law, that's fraud, and should be prosecuted as such. The same is true for funeral homes that sell a casket for cremation and then don't burn it with the body but keep it for future sale. If those practices are not already illegal, this bill would be the place to correct those oversights.
The main goal should be to protect Marylanders from being taken for a ride by businesses whose work is supposed to help make the grieving process a little easier.