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Complaints stall cemetery plan

(Published May 5, 2003)

By LaSHELL STRATTON

Staff Writer

Almost 10 years ago, Randy Horton and other local funeral directors saw the writing on the wall.

The funeral industry was fast becoming part of corporate America, with regional and national companies beginning to take over what were once almost exclusively family-owned business enterprises. And to reduce their own operating costs, the big conglomerates began buying or opening their own cemeteries.

But Horton said operating costs began climbing precipitously for independently owned funeral homes like his, Hortonís Funeral Service Inc. in Northwest Washingtonís Brightwood neighborhood, as corporate competitors began to control the cemetery fees required for burial of his clients.

So he and some other D.C. area funeral directors formed a coalition they called the Tenacity Group. They then decided to purchase land and build their own cemetery in Upper Marlboro, Md., near Swanson Road and Marlboro Meadows, therefore circumventing the larger funeral companiesí cemetery fees.

They said their cemetery would cater to "the African American community." Horton said they would have charged $1,800 for all opening of graves and vaults, while other cemeteries in the D.C. area charge as much as $3,000 for the same service. They would also set aside spaces for indigent people who could not afford plots.

Now, almost 10 years later, the Tenacity Group says community complaints and a Prince Georgeís County officialís ruling stopped the building of their low-priced cemetery in Upper Marlboro. Some members of the organization also claim racial bias as the real reason why the cemetery may not be built on the former farm site.

"When this property was owned in 1994, the approval was given with no objection," said Horton, who serves as president of the Tenacity Group. "Now people claim they didnít know anything about the cemetery...I donít see why not. We put up a sign. But itís ironic that when a group of African-Americans want to build a cemetery, thereís all these problems."

Horton said he and other local funeral directors are often faced with a problem that is slowly driving them into financial trouble.

"People come to us when they donít have the money," Horton said. "For the bigger places, itís not even an issue. If you want a funeral, you have to pay."

David Watkins, spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, said traditionally funeral costs are broken down into three categories.

"There are service charges, merchandise and cash advance items that include clergy expenses, funeral announcements in newspapers, and cemetery fees. The funeral home usually makes no money off the last category," Watkins said. "Most states have some type of funeral benefit for services to funeral homes who work with people in need. But the benefits largely depend on the state."

The D.C. Department of Human Services offers burial assistance to D.C. residents, but the funeral costs cannot exceed $2,000. The District will give only $800 toward the funeral and $450 for cremation if those who qualify are below a certain income level. The family is responsible for the cemetery plot.

The Maryland Department of Social Services also offers burial assistance to state residents, but the funeral expenses cannot exceed $1,500 and the state government will give only up to $650 toward the funeral, except in special circumstances. Only foster children under the Social Services Administration, Temporary Cash Assistance customers, individuals considered eligible for Temporary Emergency Medical and Housing Assistance, and persons receiving Supplemental Security Income qualify.

In Virginia, burial assistance falls under general relief financial assistance programs. Funeral allotments and income cutoffs can vary from county to county.

But according to a national survey conducted by the Funeral Service Educational Foundation in Brookfield, Wis., in 2001 the average cost for a funeral in the United States was $6,130, not including cemetery charges like buying a tombstone and opening a grave. In the South Atlantic region Ė which includes D.C., Maryland and Virginia Ė the average cost was slightly less at $6,097.

Even with government assistance, many families still feel the heavy financial burden of burying their dead.

Horton said the only way members of the Tenacity Group could afford to continue to charge lower prices was to own their own cemetery.

"In order for [the Tenacity Group] to keep up and compete, we had to grow," Horton said.

But that growth could end before the groundbreaking. Beginning last year, the Prince Georgeís Office of Planning conducted zoning hearings over the proposed cemetery based on a special exception rule, which brought the cemeteryís construction up for another review after two years.

In March, Prince Georgeís County hearing examiner Joyce Nichols ruled the cemetery could not be built after hearing testimony from the Tenacity Group, community members, burial experts and consumer advocates. The Tenacity Group has since appealed her ruling and the matter will go before the Prince Georgeís County Council. At press time, a council hearing had not been scheduled.

Carolyn Jacobi of Eternal Justice, a company started by the Prince Georgeís County-based consumer advocate, testified against the Tenacity Group cemeteryís construction. Jacobi said she takes offense at the groupís claims of racial prejudice.

"This is not being done because theyíre African-American," Jacobi said. "I am African-American."

Jacobi said community members who feared possible contamination of local well water by formaldehyde from the cemetery contacted her. Formaldehyde is used in the process of embalming dead bodies.

Jacobiís research showed that contamination could occur if certain precautionary measures were not taken.

But Horton disputes that finding.

"For years, communities have had funerals behind churches and there hasnít been polluting from formaldehyde," he said.

Jacobi said she also is "very concerned with the road layout in the area," pointing to research that showed the roads are too narrow to accommodate traffic from a funeral procession along with traffic from the local neighborhoods.

If there was a fire, "the cars would have to move so far over they would go over the cliff," she said.

"This whole thing has been taken out of context because [the members of the Tenacity Group] are trying to make it seem like itís a racial problem and itís not. Itís not even a problem of the conglomerates, even though Iím sure they wouldnít want the competition," Jacobi said, referring to speculations made by some members of the Tenacity Group that hurdles to the cemetery construction might also be caused by powerful funeral industry corporate opposition.

"This is something [the Tenacity Group] brought on themselves," Jacobi said.

One of the more well known conglomerates in the D.C. area and one of the Tenacity Groupís strongest competitors is Stewart Enterprises Inc. The corporation began in New Orleans, La., in 1910 and has since expanded its operations to 29 states and Puerto Rico. Stewart Enterprises now owns 12 funeral homes and cemeteries in Maryland, including Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood and Harmony Memorial Park in Landover. (It is not affiliated with Stewart Funeral Home in the District.)

Georgianne Gullett, a Stewart Enterprises spokeswoman, said her corporation is not trying to stop the Tenacity Group from building its cemetery.

"I called some of our guys [in D.C.] and they filled me in on the situation," Gullett said. "We had not really heard anything about [the Tenacity Group]. There would be no reason for us to get involved in the regulatory process for their cemetery."

Now that the regulatory process has moved to the county council, Horton said he hopes "that when the council hears the truth, it will change their minds."

He also said even if the Prince Georgeís County Council does not allow the group to build its cemetery after the final hearing, the Tenacity Group will try again.

"We wonít give up," Horton said. "Weíll just look for another place somewhere else."

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator