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Cemetery regulation called lax

Cemetery regulators aren't doing enough to make sure bodies are buried where they should be, state auditors say.

Auditors reviewed 15 plots at 20 different cemeteries and found four instances of mismatched graves. They also chastised regulators for weak enforcement, including a tendency to encourage settlement among the parties instead of disciplining the cemetery companies.

"The big special interests in the funeral home business have a lot of power," said Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, who sponsored a bill in the Legislature aimed at tightening regulation of the funeral industry. "It's unfortunate because grieving families in their most vulnerable moment are being taken advantage of."

But don't expect swift changes. Comptroller Bob Milligan said the Department of Banking and Finance, which helps to oversee funeral homes and cemeteries, has focused on the more than $1-billion in so-called "pre-need" contracts that customers sign for future services.

"I won't deny that's where our focus has been," Milligan said Monday. "This is the millions and millions of dollars people invested and we watch it like a hawk. It's also our job to look at cemeteries, but when you have limited resources, you use them the best way you can."

Two much-publicized incidents in Florida last year, and the case of an Atlanta crematorium owner who dumped hundreds of bodies in the woods have put the multibillion dollar industry on the hot seat.

State legislators asked for the audit after a number of families filed lawsuits accusing cemeteries in Palm Beach and Broward counties last year with grave tampering and burying bodies in the wrong spots.

Service Corporation International of Houston, the world's largest funeral services provider and owner of the two Menorah Gardens & Funeral Chapels cemeteries, now faces both a class-action lawsuit by the families and a civil suit by the state of Florida.

The state audit showed that problems with Service Corporation International's burial records go as far back as 1996, when inspectors found two people who were buried out of place. A 1998 examination found three people who were not buried in the right spots.

Don Mathis, an SCI spokesman, said some of the problems existed decades before the company purchased the two cemeteries in 1995. Other allegations about moving remains from one spot to another have not been proved, he said.

Two agencies oversee funeral homes and cemeteries in Florida. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation is responsible for licensing and regulating funeral directors, embalmers, crematoriums and their facilities. The Department of Banking and Finance regulates cemetery companies, "pre-need" sales agents and monument companies.

Ross McVoy, an attorney for the Florida Cemetery Association, said the cemeteries fought Pruitt's bill because they believe current laws already address legislators' concerns.

"The vast majority of deceased persons in Florida have their remains dealt with properly," McVoy said.

However, the inspectors that regulate the state's 173 licensed cemeteries and 690 pre-need contract businesses and their branches also oversee mortgage brokers, loan companies, credit companies and others.

Diana Evans, chief of the Bureau of Funeral and Cemetery Services in the Comptroller's Office, said she plans to create a more thorough system of cemetery inspections.

However, Evans said that some violations don't warrant strong penalties. She said it's also virtually impossible to shut down a cemetery and tell families who have bought space near their loved ones that they can no longer bury other family members there.

John McQueen, an owner of Anderson-McQueen Funeral Homes and Sunnyside Cemetery on 19th Street N, said he welcomes more oversight. But he's not sure how to improve the system. Right now, inspectors arrive about once a year, pick about 10 burial spots and have him stick a pole in the ground to make sure it hits a coffin or a vault.

"Looking at it from their standpoint, how can they further regulate it once the vault is in the ground?" McQueen asked. "The inspector has no way of knowing who's in the ground."

At least two Florida state legislators proposed legislation designed to better regulate the industry during the session that ended last week. It passed the Senate but was never taken up in the House.

Pruitt's measure would have created tougher penalties for violating the state's regulations. It also would have consolidated regulation of the industry.