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Ill. Lawmakers Consider Softening Cemetery Law

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) – Tough cemetery regulations imposed last year after the Burr Oak scandal have proved burdensome for many Illinois cemeteries, leading lawmakers to consider rolling them back.

The Illinois Senate has passed legislation revoking key parts of the cemetery law, including the requirement for a centralized state database of gravesites. It also would allow nearly all cemetery managers to avoid getting a license.

The regulations were inspired by the shocking conditions at historic Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, a Chicago suburb. Investigators found bones and caskets dumped in heaps after allegedly being dug up so that plots could be re-used. In some cases, multiple bodies had been buried in single graves.

Authorities could not tell who was supposed to be buried in each grave because the cemetery’s records had disintegrated or vanished. Some supporters of the regulations that were approved after Burr Oak say they could support modest tweaks. But they say the legislation now under consideration would gut the law.

“It’s shocking to think anyone would want to go back to leaving this industry virtually unregulated,” said Steve Patterson, spokesman for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who uncovered the misconduct at Burr Oak two years ago.

Sen. Emil Jones III helped pass the legislation that stiffened cemetery regulations. Now he’s leading the push to soften them. The Chicago Democrat argues the state’s small cemeteries can’t afford their share of the licensing costs imposed by the regulations – from $5.5 million to $7 million statewide. Jones also questioned whether the regulations would stop someone who is determined to cut corners.

“You can put all the laws on the books, but you can’t ever prevent anyone from committing crimes,” Jones said.

Last year’s law required cemeteries to provide information for a central database on graves. The goal was to record exactly who was buried and where.

It also ordered managers of private, non-religious cemeteries to obtain a state license, which involves passing an exam and meeting continuing education requirements. Other cemetery workers must detail their work history and provide evidence of character. The law established a “Consumer Bill of Rights” telling families their options, costs and exactly where their loved one will be buried.

Now the Senate has voted 54-2 to eliminate the gravesite database, as well as background checks for cemetery employees. Consumer complaints would be handled by the state’s attorney in each county instead of a central state office.

Jones said the bill also lifts a requirement that cemeteries buy insurance against any wrongdoing similar to what occurred at Burr Oak. He said that proved difficult considering few, if any, insurance companies have policies for grave robbing. Detractors said Jones’ bill would deregulate 96 percent of Illinois cemeteries.

Most of the state’s 14,000 graveyards are small cemeteries with volunteer staff, little money and few burials, said Vickie Hand, legislative chairwoman with Illinois Cemetery and Funeral Home Association.

She said the new regulations were forcing them to close.

“Requiring things that cost a lot of money, all it does is run up bills for the cemetery and consumer,” Hand said. “It was to the point that it was going to cause abandonment.”

Hand said the proposed changes would still include a consumer’s bill of rights that informs people of a grave’s exact location and imposes a contractual obligation for the cemetery to maintain the gravesite.

Privately run, for-profit cemeteries would remain subject to the licensing requirement and other regulations, while public, religious or small private cemeteries would not, Hand said. For-profit cemeteries handle most of the state’s burials, she added.

The House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Elaine Nekritz, said she has begun discussions of the matter in that chamber. Roman Szabelski, executive director with Catholic Cemeteries Archdiocese of Chicago, served on a gubernatorial task force that studied Burr Oak and recommended changes in the law. He said he was surprised the new regulations came out as strong as they did, adding that they seemed to address record-keeping more than cemetery procedures.

Szabelski said the law is effective but needs “tweaking” to make licensing and regulation less burdensome on small cemeteries. Sen. Donne Trotter, one of the two votes against Jones’ bill, agreed the law needs to be improved. But he said Jones’ proposal “really gutted” the law.

“There were some overreaching issues in the original bill,” the Chicago Democrat said. “A lot of things that would have been too onerous, we could have adjusted that.”

The new legislation is SB1853. Read in online here.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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