Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cemetery bill aims to end hodge-podge regulations

By Bethany Jaeger

All cemetery owners, managers and employees, including those hired to trim trees or maintain cemetery grounds, would have to register with the state and carry identification cards to prove their clearance to work on site, according to newly proposed legislation. In an attempt to clarify the hodge-podge regulation exposed in the Burr Oak cemetery scandal last summer, owners, managers and all employees who had direct contact with customers would have to go a step further by becoming licensed by the state and subjecting themselves to criminal background checks.

Senate Bill 1471, sponsored by House Speaker Michael Madigan, follows recommendations of the Cemetery Oversight Task Force commissioned by Gov. Pat Quinn after media reports exposed a scandal in the historic African-American cemetery in Alsip. Bodies were moved and dumped into a mass grave in an alleged scheme to resell gravesites (see Illinois Issues, September 2009, page 13).

While there’s widespread agreement that the state needs to respond to the Burr Oak tragedy with new regulations, some officials of nonprofit, religious, municipal and fraternal cemeteries argue that they should be exempt from the new licensing and registration rules. They currently are exempt.

Roman Szabelski, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago, was appointed by the court to oversee Burr Oak Cemetery after the scandal broke. “I think this bill is overkill,” he said to an Illinois House Committee Wednesday morning. He added that the licensing and registration rules would pass costs on to consumers and would be cumbersome with inadequate time to comply. He added that a new cemetery database would risk the misuse of information about the deceased and their burial plots.

Szabelski and Robert Gilligan of the Catholic Conference of Illinois indicated they could sign on to regulatory reforms if nonprofit cemeteries were made “partially exempt,” meaning they would not have to become licensed by the state but would have to submit to investigations if someone filed a complaint against them.

Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin added after the committee hearing that the bill as written could limit municipalities in providing sewer services, community service workers and maintenance crews, which sometimes use inmates from the corrections department, given the added registration costs and background checks. He described the bill as “killing a gnat with a nuclear bomb.”

Madigan indicated during the committee hearing that he would be open to discussing concerns about whether certain cemeteries would be exempt from the new licensing and registration rules. The bill would exempt family burial grounds, inactive cemeteries and cemeteries smaller than 2 acres.

All regulatory oversight would be consolidated under the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. Some oversight, including over the pre-need funeral trust industry, now is under the state comptroller’s purview, but a discrepancy has arisen about whether that office has the regulatory teeth needed to address negligent cemetery owners and whether Comptroller Dan Hynes could have done anything to prevent the Burr Oak tragedy.

Here are some other highlights of the legislation:

  • Owners would have to maintain cemetery maps and burial records, including information about the deceased and required parcel identification numbers, which would be open to public inspection.
  • The Department of Financial and Professional Regulation would have to create a burial database; within 72 hours of a burial, a cemetery manager must send the burial record to the state database.
  • The department would be able to investigate all cemetery-related activity, audit financial records and penalize noncompliance.
  • Family burial grounds, inactive cemeteries that haven’t performed burials within the past decade and cemeteries smaller than 2 acres would be exempt from the new rules. Cemeteries that performed fewer than 25 burials in the past two years wouldn’t have to register, but they would have to submit to investigation if someone filed a complaint with the state.
  • The Illinois Department of Natural Resources would be able to develop a program to clean up abandoned or neglected cemeteries.
  • Relatives of the deceased whose bodies were dismembered or whose remains were desecrated would be compensated for reburial costs and “psychological care.”

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