by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
March 12, 2002
A PALL OVER GEORGIA
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- When there's a universal understanding of how to act in any given situation, we say, "Well, it goes without saying." How do you treat a dead body? "Well, it goes without saying, you treat it carefully and with great respect." We all know that. It goes without saying.
That must be why Ray Brent Marsh, a pillar of his community, didn't hear what goes without saying? Because, on the grounds of his Tri-State Crematory near Noble, Ga., 339 bodies have been uncovered so far. The gruesome sight of unearthed bodies having neither shreds of covering nor the minimum dignity of a shroud is so horrific it would appear we've had one moremadman walk among us.
Not so. Mr. Marsh is a business owner, a family business he tookover. He is known, respected; yet, once this situation was revealed, shockwaves flashed over the small town in the northwest corner of Georgia, astone's throw away from Alabama and Tennessee. At the moment, he stands" accused" of breaking the law - but not for what you might think.
There is no law in Georgia against degrading a dead body. However, in Georgia's defense, you must be a licensed funeral director to run a crematory. This is not true of 44 other states - all you have to do is build one, and they will come.
There is also no law against greed, and there can be no other motive. He has an excuse: The crematorium was not functioning (but it was, the gas company inspectors proclaimed). After some head-scratching and mumbling that "It goes without saying, we have to book him for something," they arrested Marsh on 174 counts of "theft by deception." He took the family's money to cremate their kin, and then stacked bodies in rusting, burial vaults back by the rusted out hearse.
Some ended up in shallow graves or, the excavators believe, rest uneasily at the bottom of a man-made lake, drained this week. In the last few days, the authorities issued arrest warrants for his parents and his sister for falsifying death certificates, a felony that carries a sentence of one to five years.
Meanwhile, the work continues. It reportedly costs $5,000,000 a week to keep the work force going until every body is retrieved and the remains are returned to a heartsick family. No one counts the cost to make it right. It's what we do in a good country.
Because there is so little regulation in the industry, oen can become the owner of a crematory for the $50,000 to $100,000 it costs to build one. It's a booming business; some predict that by year 2025, 50% of us will opt for cremation.
One reason is that retirees move to the "sun cities" where they have no generational roots. Factor in the cost of shipping a body back home,then weigh that against cremation as the relatively inexpensive solution - followed by a family reunion at a memorial service back home, or wherever theirroots were planted.
The Georgia case is causing people all over the country torethink their decision to be cremated. Because our laws by legislation or custom are based on British common law, we are a society based on centuries of tradition - or so we assume. Yet if that were true,our crematories would be connected to a graveyard, usually adjacent to achurch, right in the middle of a community. There is no mystery surroundingthe purpose of the crematory, and it's easy to monitor when it's right therefor all to see.
That may be the way it is in England, but not here. Although Texas requires they be on-site at cemeteries, and Massachusetts and New York do, too, that's not the case in Kentucky, where the state attorney general's office monitors crematories. In Arizona, the Real Estate Commission is in charge. Some states leave it to the Environmental Quality Department and at least 10 assign crematory-monitoring to the Dept. of Health.
Overseeing crematories is made all the more difficult here because we tuck them away somewhere - perhaps in an industrial location, or some rural area. According to Tom Snyder, president of the Cremation Association of North America, "Crematoriums are like prisons. You need them, but you don't want them in your neighborhood."
The whole subject is morbid, and it's not in our nature to dwell on it.
After the arrest warrants for the Marshes were issued this week, deputy district attorney Chris Arnt told reporters, "This is an ongoing investigation. As soon as evidence develops and we think we can charge someone, we will do that."
When that news hit the wires, a pall fell over the state of Georgia, where there is no law against what the Marshes did with dead human bodies. Yet, the gruesome discovery is already setting into motion a new wave regulations, licensing and inspections that can now offer the peace of knowing our dearly departed have been sent off with dignity.
A number of years ago, in the Reader's Digest, I read the following story, and I believe it's true.
The author wrote of having arrived at a funeral parlor early for the "viewing" of his friend's mother. His plane was early, he had no other reason to be there so he decided to just wait the two hours. It was a somewhat darkened room, he paid his respects at the kneeling bench, recalled times past spent with this lovely lady, walked around looking at cards on the floral arrangements, stepped out into the sun, and came back into the cooler viewing room. Then he noticed a panel of buttons on the wall just inside the entry to the viewing parlor.
Curious, he pressed a button: A pale blue light shone over the open casket. He pressed another: The light changed to a soft pink. He pressed still another, andd soft funereal music came from hidden speakers.
Impressed, he put his finger over the last button and pushed it. A platform holding the casket raised majestically while drapes behind it parted, a glass partition dropped from view opening a passageway, and the casket slipped quietly into the furnace. That story ended with a gasp.
There should have been a law.