Reports that Mendocino County Supervisor Dan Hamburg buried his late wife on the family's rural Ukiah-area property have brought unwanted scrutiny — including a criminal investigation — to a matter his attorney says should be private for every Californian.
The county's top lawman said he opened an investigation into the matter after receiving an anonymous tip shortly after the March 5 death of Carrie Hamburg, the supervisor's wife of four decades.
"We have reason to believe she's buried there," Sheriff Tom Allman said this week.
But he flatly denied press accounts suggesting he planned to disinter the remains.
"We don't want to exhume the body. I want this to play out in a court of law and have a judge determine what we're going to do," Allman said.
Burial of human bodies outside an established cemetery without a permit remains a misdemeanor under California law, despite a growing national movement toward simpler, more intimate end-of-life rituals.
Hamburg, a onetime congressman and chairman of the Board of Supervisors, was still in the first weeks of mourning his wife's death from cancer when he was notified of the investigation. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
His attorney, Barry Vogel, wouldn't confirm Carrie Hamburg's final resting place, calling it a matter of personal privacy protected under the state constitution.
"Home burial on large parcels of rural real property a proper distance from water courses and property lines is allowed in almost all states," Vogel said. "We believe that this whole issue is matter of individual privacy as guaranteed by Article 1, Section 1, of the California Constitution."
As a featured speaker at a May 4 seminar in Willits on preparing for death and dying, Vogel advocated for changes that would make it easier for Californians to bury loved ones at home, according to Jerrigrace Lyons, who attended the seminar and consults on home and family-directed funerals as the owner of Final Passages in Sebastopol.
It is possible to pursue a home burial in California, but not without significant expense, exacting legal requirements and local land-use approval — hurdles that proved too high for the likes of pop icon Michael Jackson, whose family abandoned hopes of burying him at his storied Neverland Ranch.
Requirements include a minimum $35,000 endowment care fund, incorporation and designation of a licensed cemetery manager.
"It can get to be kind of a hassle, and it can be expensive," said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the state Cemetery and Funeral Bureau.
Representatives for billionaire wine producer Jess Jackson, who died of cancer in 2011, met the requirements to have him buried atop a hill in Alexander Valley, designating 12,000 square feet of vineyard as the Alexander Mountain Estate Cemetery, bureau personnel said. It has space for about eight burials.
Such arrangements are few and far between, though a similar burial plot in a St. Helena vineyard is currently in the works, a state licensing worker said. Hamburg did not file an application, she said.
The family of Ronald Reagan, who was buried outside his presidential library in Simi Valley, bypassed state regulation under a religious exemption that required the site be deeded to a church.
To dedicate even the smallest family graveyard, applicants must comply with rules similar to those set for a commercial cemetery, beginning with local zoning or permitting approvals. Religious entities are exempt from state regulation, however, creating the option to deed property to a church, such as Nancy Reagan did. Most California cemeteries are, in fact, run under religious exemptions, Heimerich said.