Cremation, the burning of a dead body to ashes, has become an increasingly popular option of disposing of final remains.
In 1958, roughly 3.6 percent of the 1.6 million U.S. citizens who died were cremated. That figure jumped to 25 percent of 2.3 million people in 2000, and is expected to grow to 49 percent by 2025, says Jack Springer, of the Cremation Association of North America, a trade group representing 1,200 cemetery owners, cremationists, funeral directors and industry suppliers.
Twenty-seven states have laws of one sort or another dealing with cremation. But most measures deal with licensing, who can run the crematory, who can pick up the body from the funeral home and who can authorize cremation. Generally, they don't deal with the process itself.
"You can't drive a truck in any state without a license. But you can operate expensive cremation equipment that handles a priceless commodity, namely people, and you don't have to have any training in most states," Springer says.
Springer says more states should mandate inspections, an aspect of crematory oversight that even the trade associations admit they overlooked. "Our model law doesn't address inspections, and it has never been high on our list. But we're now drawing up guidelines for setting up an inspection program," he says.
Nine statesConnecticut, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin and the District of Columbia have no regulations or laws regulating crematories whatsoever.
Nebraska Sen. Dennis Byars wants to change that. He introduced a measure last January setting up a licensing system and mandating crematory inspections in his state. "Cremation is on the increase and there are potential problems with the system," Byars says.
Thanks to media attention on what happened in Georgia, Nebraska lawmakers are now likely to approve Byars' measure. "Because of what happened in Georgia, there's a good general consensus ... to move it ahead," he says.
Lax regulatory states aren't the only places a hot political topic may see some play in current sessions. In California, where officials boast of the nation's toughest regulations, lawmakers are moving to tighten up already stringent cremation oversight.
Sen. Liz Figueroa introduced this week (3/18) amendments to the state's consumer protection laws making it a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, to dispose of human remains in a place other than a cemetery. The measure also increases annual inspections of cemeteries, an important point because 56 percent, or 101 of 179 licensed crematories in California are located in cemeteries.
Figueroa says the measure brings even better oversight over the cemetery and funeral industry. "This legislation addresses the potential harm that could be caused by unscrupulous practitioners in the cemetery and crematory industry who attempt to take advantage of California's consumers at an extremely emotional time in their lives," she says.