Monday, March 11, 2002

Open house draws crowd at crematory

By Steve Bailey
The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — Kitty Mattingly didn't flinch as she peered into the cramped, dark chamber — the one in which 1,800-degree heat reduces a human body to nothing more than ash and bone.

        “I've wanted to be cremated for as long as I can remember,” said Ms. Mattingly, 72.

        “I had to come take a peek at where I'm gonna go when I'm gone.”

        More than three dozen people packed into a crematory open house at the 153-year-old Lexington Cemetery on a rainy Saturday. The event followed recent reports of bodies dumped at a north Georgia crematory.

        Gruesome reports of bodies dumped at a north Georgia crematory prompted more than three dozen people to pack into a crematory open house at the 153-year-old Lexington Cemetery on a recent rainy Saturday. It was held to dispel potential customers' fears that the same fate could await them.

        “You hear and read about something horrible like that and it really makes you wonder,” said Jacque King, a 45-year-old social worker whose boyfriend videotaped the tour.

        “So this is something I had to come and see for myself.”

        Ray Brent Marsh, 28, of Noble, Ga., faces charges of theft by deception stemming from the discovery of 339 discarded bodies on the property of Tri-State Crematory.

        Prosecutors claim that Mr. Marsh, the crematory's operator, took money for cremations he never performed, instead stashing the bodies on the property.

        Even those in the industry were shaken by the revelations.

        “I thought it had to be some kind of mistake,” said Dan Scalf, president and general manager of the Lexington Cemetery.

        “You have to have ethics, and a sense of what is right, no matter what kind of business you do. In this business, where people are emotional and grief-stricken over the loss of a loved one, it's even more critical.”

        Mr. Scalf said the cemetery had been thinking of holding an open house at the crematory long before the Georgia incident generated headlines.

        “We know a lot of people have questions about cremation and it seemed like a good way to answer a lot of those questions in a personal way,” he said.

        “After the thing in Georgia broke, we thought it also would be a way to dispel any apprehension people might have had about our operation and how we do things here.

        “We want to assure people we have nothing to hide,” Mr. Scalf said.

        He added, “We had an hour of very good questions before the tour even started, and that kind of surprised me a little bit.”

        Jack Springer, executive director of the Chicago-based Cremation Association of North America, said many of the organization's 1,200-plus members hold similar sessions.

        “If the numbers continue as they have for the past decade, by 2025, close to 50 percent of all deaths nationally will result in cremation,” Mr. Springer said.

        “These kinds of events are held as a public service to let people know cremation is a viable and cost-effective alternative to burial following the loss of a loved one.”

        According to the association, 17 percent of those who died in 1990 in the United States were cremated.

        In 2000, the most recent year for which figures are available, the number of cremations had jumped to 603,092 — or 25 percent — in the United States.

        “People find they have a lot more options when they cremate,” Scalf said. “In many cases, they find it is equally or even more cost-efficient than burial.”

        Despite a strong religious background, Mattingly said she's never had any hesitation about being cremated.

        “Once I'm dead, I'm dead,” she said with a chuckle. “Even if I did believe in reincarnation or resurrection, I certainly wouldn't want to come back in this broken-down old body.”

        Lacy Robinson, a 22-year-old student from Northern Kentucky, came to the open house with a friend to learn more about cremation firsthand.

        She plans to attend mortuary school in the fall.

        The process “was a lot more organized, clean and neat than I ever imagined,” she said.

        Ms. Robinson said she was fascinated by the tour and found that cremation was a lot different than she expected.

        “I had no clue that the skeleton is pulverized after being taken out of the chamber and that magnets are used to extract pieces of metal from the remains,” Robinson said.

        “I went in with this mental image of some dark, dirty hole where they go down and take these bodies, but it's not like that at all. It was a lot more organized, clean and neat than I ever imagined.”

        Evelyn McCauley of Cynthiana said that she and her husband attended the open house to ease their minds about their decision to be cremated

        “There's not a lot of places you can go and get all the facts in such an open and easy manner,” McCauley said. “We learned a lot today and I think it helps make us feel like we're making the right decision.”

        Scalf said the success of the open house may prompt the cemetery to hold similar sessions in the future.

        “We had an hour of very good questions before the tour even started, and that kind of surprised me a little bit,” he said.

        “If people came away with a better idea of what is involved in cremation and what to expect at our facility, then I think we provided a welcome service and hopefully eased any fears.”


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