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US House panel says cemetery oversight needed
By Rupa Shenoy | Associated Press
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Published: 7/28/2009 12:01 AM

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A patchwork of inconsistent state laws governing cemeteries allow scandals like one in suburban Chicago, where four people are accused of unearthing bodies in an alleged moneymaking scheme, experts told U.S. legislators Monday.

Members of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection meeting in Chicago said they would likely propose some sort of federal legislation so what happened at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill., could not happen again.

"We're not having this for some type of show," said committee chairman Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill. "This day will make a difference."

Four former worker of the historic African-American cemetery are accused of disinterring hundreds of bodies and leaving them in the tall weeds of an adjacent field or double-stacking them in graves in an alleged scheme to resell burial plots. Each suspect is charged with one count of dismembering a human body.

The federal government has little to no role in cemetery oversight, and state regulations are a "hodgepodge" that vary widely, Funeral Consumer Alliance executive director Joshua Slocum said.

Several people offered suggestions. Committee member Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., recommended deeding grave sites to families, while his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, testified that cemeteries should be required to post more information online. A funeral home director suggested requiring cemeteries to add the specific locations of graves to death certificates.

But committee member Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., wondered aloud if increasing regulation of the cemetery industry would result in increased costs for grieving families. And Illinois Cemetery and Funeral Home Association general counsel Harvey Lapin said that Burr Oak did not represent the way most cemeteries do business.

After the Burr Oak suspects were charged, dozens of families arrived at the cemetery to search for their relatives' graves. Hazel Crest resident Roxie Williams, 44, told committee members that she couldn't find the gravestone her mother had scrimped to buy for her father's grave.

"We paid a mint to bury my father like the king he was," she said. But "all that was there was grass."