First-ever oversight of cemeteries begins

By Patrick Smith

The newly formed Cemetery Oversight Board, spurred by last year’s controversy at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. when 200 to 300 corpses were found dug up and piled in an isolated area of the cemetery, had its inaugural meeting on March 3.

The board, made of veterans of the cemetery industry and community activists, will advise the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation in its new role to oversee all of the cemeteries in Illinois, of which there are thousands.

The meeting, which took place via satellite in both Chicago and Springfield, Ill., was conducted in a quiet, even tone, but  disagreements between and questions raised by the board members exposed a piece of legislation written by lawmakers unfamiliar with the cemetery industry.  The Cemetery Oversight Act, signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn on Jan. 18, was opposed by the Illinois Cemetery and Funeral Home Association.

Board members took issue with every page of the new committee rule book, beginning with chairperson Brent Adams, who opened the meeting with a promise that “trailer legislation” would give an answer to the question of what exactly a “burial unit” is, a term frequently used in the legislation but foreign to cemetery operators.

But most of the concerns, from both board members and cemetery owners who attended the meeting in a cramped, overheated office on the ninth floor of the Thompson Center, were about two elements of the bill: a required new numbering system for every grave in Illinois and how the new oversight and licensing would be paid for. While the Cemetery Oversight Act lays out several new requirements for cemeteries and the people who work in them, and several new responsibilities for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, it does not provide any money to meet them.

The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation is already cash-strapped and stretched thin. The department oversees more than a million people who are licensed in their professions in Illinois, and according to spokeswoman Sue Hofer, budget deficits have forced the agency to make cutbacks in recent years. But Hofer said she doesn’t think the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation will need any more money to regulate the cemeteries until next fiscal year, which begins July 1, because nothing is slated to happen before then. The estimated cost of the new oversight is $8.4 million.

“That’s assuming a full staff; that’s not going to happen by July 1,” Adams said.

Hofer’s colleague, Louis Pukelis, doesn’t think the agency will need any additional money from the state in the next fiscal year either.

“Like all of the professions we oversee, the money will come from the licensing fees,” Pukelis said.

That is exactly what funeral owners are afraid of.

“They want me to pay a dollar for every grave in my cemetery,” said Michael Walsh, owner of Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in Bloomington, Ill. “My cemetery has been around since 1901; that money has already been made from most of the plots, why should I have to pay for them?”

Other owners agreed the fees were an unfair burden. Walsh called the act and the new oversight a “total overreaction” to the Burr Oaks scandal, saying the incident was tragic, but nothing like that had happened before in Illinois.

“It’s going to be the cemeteries that rely on low-income burials that are going to be really hurt by this,” Walsh said.

What may prove to be even more of an issue than funding is the required renumbering of every grave in the state. The meeting ground to a halt for more than 30 minutes while the board members debated the feasibility of a statewide

numbering system.

“One of the most important things this board can do is create a uniform basis to find where someone is buried,” said activist Zenobia Johnson-Black, who is not a part of the cemetery industry.

The proposed numbering system is a direct reaction to the scandal at Burr Oak, when the bereaved were forced to scour the cemetery searching for their buried loved ones.

But those who work in cemeteries said a renumbering was not possible. All sold plots in a cemetery have deeds which tell the family or individual the location of their purchased grave, and the cemeteries have their own long-standing numbering system. According to cemetery owners, changing the way they have numbered their plots, or to keep two sets of numbers would be impossible and would lead to more chaos.

The meeting opened with a reminder from Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation attorneys about the Open Meetings Act, which requires the public be notified any time three or more of the board members meet to discuss cemetery oversight. But the inaugural meeting was hardly easily accessible. After going through a security screening that Walsh described as “worse than at O’Hare, “Walsh and a fellow cemetery owner got lost in the labyrinth of the ninth floor of the Thompson Center.

When they asked a staff member to direct them to the meeting place, he became lost, leading the pair through rows of cubicles before being forced to ask for directions himself.

The board has nine members, all of whom were present at the first meeting. Roman F. Szabelski, one of the board members, was the receiver of Burr Oak Cemetery when the bodies were discovered.

In the past, Hofer has said the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation does not typically investigate professionals unless a complaint is filed with the department, but that will be different for cemeteries.

“In this case, we will be examining every cemetery on a regular basis,” Hofer said.