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Illinois Newspaper Has an Opinion: Have a Single Agency Regulate Death Industry

IT SEEMS to be almost unanimous: The Illinois comptroller should not be in charge of regulating the state?s cemeteries. Instead, regulatory authority should be placed solely in the hands of the state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

Comptroller Dan Hynes seemed to agree with the recommendations by a commission appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn to examine the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal in suburban Chicago, in which 300 bodies were dug up in a scheme to resell plots. Lawmakers are expected to consider legislation on the issue when they return to Springfield in October.

WHEN THEY DO, legislators should not forget the scandal involving the Illinois Funeral Directors Association.

The IFDA?s pre-need funeral fund has lost nearly $100 million, according to funeral directors suing the IFDA. The trust was established to pay for funerals for more than 40,000 state residents and once was worth as much as $300 million.

The IFDA also allegedly took excessive fees while managing the trust and submitted false statements, according to the comptroller?s office. Federal prosecutors in Springfield are investigating what happened with the fund. The IFDA has denied wrongdoing.

The IFDA scandal has taken a bit of a back seat because of the gruesome nature of what happened at Burr Oak. But when legislators take up legislation related to cemeteries, they must also address regulation of the funeral home industry. They also should place it under the oversight of a single state agency under the governor.

Quinn?s commission, noting that there are 37 different statutes related to cemetery oversight that involve several agencies, recommended those provisions be combined into a single section of state law.

In his meeting with our editorial board in July, Hynes attempted to explain the tortuous route of the IFDA scandal, which started with the IFDA receiving a license in 1980 for the pre-need trust fund under then-Comptroller Roland Burris, a license Hynes said Burris never should have issued.

IT’S UNCLEAR today how much responsibility Hynes bears for the IFDA and Burr Oak messes and whether he could have done more sooner.

In lawsuits aimed at recovering IFDA losses, funeral directors say the comptroller didn?t do enough. And state law also says any violation of laws related to pre-need funerals is a Class 4 felony.

Hynes, who hasn?t ruled out pressing for criminal charges, chose to pursue the matter civilly, even though he said the IFDA broke the law by taking the excessive fees.

But one thing is clear: State law regarding the death industry is a tangled web that has served Illinois poorly. It needs to be swatted away and reconfigured so that the lines of accountability clearly point to one state agency.

The General Assembly should keep that in mind for both the cemetery and funeral home industries when it returns next month.

Other recommendations by Quinn?s panel

* Cemeteries would be subject to regular inspections, would have to hire licensed staffers and could be fined if they did not follow regulations.

* Under the plan, funeral directors would have to tell next of kin that they should visit a cemetery before purchasing a grave.

* The state would also have to have electronic records that show precisely where bodies are buried.

THIS IS AN OPINION SUPPLIED BY THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER IN SPRINGFIELD, ILL

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