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Crematories and Regulation

February 26, 2002

"The Cremation of Shelley" by Louis-Edward Fournier, 1822It is sometimes exciting when one's home county makes national or even international news, but the place where I lived off and on for 30 years seems to be the center of attention that perhaps people in that county would like to avoid.  For the past two weeks, a horror story has unfolded in Walker County, Georgia, as state inspectors have discovered a growing number of corpses that were supposed to have been cremated but instead were dumped on the ground like cordwood.

Unfortunately, to add to the horror, politicians from Georgia and beyond are jumping on the "never again" bandwagon, as the drums for regulation--this time to further regulate crematories and the funeral industry--beat again.  It is hard to know who is being more dishonest: the political classes and their allies in crying out for more regulation, or the business owners who took the bodies and then improperly disposed of them.

Here are the facts of the story.  For the last 20 years, Tri-State Crematory of Noble, Georgia, has contracted with area funeral homes to cremate bodies, receiving payment for each one they were supposed to have destroyed.  Families of the deceased would then receive urns containing what were supposed to be the ashes of their loved ones.

It turns out, however, that for most of that time, the crematory has not worked, and the Marsh family that owns the business has never bothered to get it fixed.  The charade continued until a few weeks ago, when authorities, acting on a tip, raided the company's premises and made their most horrible discovery.  Thus, when Tri-State received the bodies but did not cremate them, they defrauded both the funeral homes and the families of the deceased.  The company's current president, Ray Brent Marsh, is charged with numerous counts of felony fraud and will surely spend many years in prison if convicted of the crimes.

We also know that politicians, never ones to miss a "current" issue--and never ones to fail to attempt to  "lock the barn door after the horse escapes"--are hard at work in Washington and in state legislatures to rewrite laws regulating crematories.  Before we see these folks as heroes who are attempting to fight against the ravages of profit-mongering capitalists, perhaps we should take another look at this and other situations where massive fraud has taken place within a business setting.

Even before we look at capitalist fraud, however, I should remind readers that governments at all levels each day engage in fraudulent activities that dwarf whatever mischief Ray Brent Marsh and his family have brought to my home county.  For one, there is Social Security, which is the world's biggest welfare program and also the world's greatest unfunded liability.  Add the monstrosity of "public" (read that, "government") schools, and we have fraud enough to last for a millennium.

The pro-regulation critics are correct in that oversight, both from private and public sources, broke down, but government authorities are more culpable here than private funeral homes.  For example, one reason that Tri-State Crematory managed to escape oversight from state inspectors was because Marsh's mother, a founder of the business, was well connected in the local Democratic Party and successfully appealed to a local Democratic state senator to have any inspection attempts blocked.

(Mrs. Marsh, a retired public school teacher, had served as the chairman of the Walker County Democratic Party and also was the Walker County president of the Georgia Association of Educators, the local arm of the notorious teachers' union, the National Education Association.  I once taught in that school system but refused to join the GAE or the NEA-and was duly rewarded for my perceived transgression by being marked down on evaluations.)

This sorry spectacle is hardly news.  Enron spread money around to the political classes in an attempt to cover its under-the-radar fraud, and it was not that long ago that owners of nearly bankrupt savings and loan associations were funneling money to politicians to keep bank regulators off their backs.  The regulatory process is one that invites corruption, so when it occurs, we should not be surprised.

Furthermore, the Tri-State fiasco, like the fall of Enron, occurred because, in the private business world, a basic level of trust and honesty is considered the norm, not the exception.  The vast majority of satisfactory business transactions are done on a reciprocal basis of trust.  Tri-State Crematory's owners abused that trust in a big way, and that is the great surprise.

Look at this point from another angle.  None of us are shocked to find that public schools consistently churn out functionally illiterate "students," or that prisons are veritable hellholes that neither "correct" nor "rehabilitate" prisoners but merely turn out people who generally are a greater danger to society than when they went in.  Nor are we shocked when politicians lie and defraud the public.  This simply is par for the course when we examine the world of politics and government.

On the other hand, the numerous other crematories in this country, including those located in north Georgia, do what they have been contracted to do: cremate remains and return the ashes to loved ones.  We are not shocked when a business acts in an honest way; we are only shocked when a business owner abuses the trust of others.

Unfortunately, we cannot say the same for the political classes.  Instead, we are actually shocked--SHOCKED, I say!--when we find someone in politics who actually is truthful and honest and does not attempt to manipulate people in order to win votes.

As to regulation of crematories, all it would have taken would have been for the Tri-State contracts to have contained a clause that permitted funeral home principals to periodically inspect the Marsh's business.  Then again, Mrs. Marsh was well known and politically active in local politics, and people mistakenly thought that meant she and her family were honest people.  People should have known better; she was a member of the political class.

William Anderson, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches economics at Frostburg State University.  Send him MAIL.  See his Mises.org Articles Archive.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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