COURSEY: Burial laws are easy to break

Politics probably motivated the anonymous tipster who complained to authorities that Mendocino County Supervisor Dan Hamburg illegally buried his late wife on their rural property.

And politics certainly motivated the investigation by Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, who confirmed last week that his office began looking into the matter in March, not long after Carrie Hamburg, 66, died of cancer. While hardly a serious offense, Allman had little choice. If he ignored such a complaint against the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, he'd be accused of political favoritism.

Now he's being accused of political vendetta.

But before this unfortunate brouhaha turns into a political donnybrook, let's take a step back.

For the Hamburg family, who live on 46 acres outside of Ukiah, this should be a private matter. Let's hope the supervisor and the sheriff can figure out how to get the proper paperwork in place and let Carrie Hamburg rest in peace.

For the rest of us, it can be a time that we examine our society's slowly shifting views of death and burial.

Clearly we could benefit from more flexibility in California's law, which makes it a misdemeanor to bury anyone outside of a registered cemetery. It's also illegal in California to scatter ashes, or cremated remains, without the written permission of the landowner or the government agency that controls the property. Scattering ashes in the ocean is only OK as long as it's done more than 500 feet from shore.

I confess: I have broken the law.

But, unless you have a mortuary or funeral home handle the preparation and disposition (a really terrible word) of your loved one, it's pretty hard not to break the law. That's the way the whole process has been set up as a "merchandise-based model of death," according to Joe Sehee of the Green Burial Council, quoted Saturday in Mary Callahan's Page 1 story.

Pursuing a home burial in California, reported Callahan, can be vexing to the average citizen on many levels including high costs, confusing legal requirements and multiple regulatory agencies.

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