Mendocino County Supervisor Dan Hamburg said Tuesday he intends to sue the county he serves, seeking to overturn its decision to deny his family a permit to bury his wife on their rural property.
In a brief interview, Hamburg said he made no secret of the fact that his late wife was buried on their property after her death in March.
Hamburg said he filed paperwork with the county's health department specifically stating Carrie Hamburg had been buried at their Boonville Road home, in keeping with her long-held wishes and the explicit instructions outlined in a codicil to her will signed a week before her March 5 death.
But in a sign she anticipated the legal questions it would raise, Carrie Hamburg demanded her family bury her before attempting to resolve any objections, according to the Feb. 26 document.
Hamburg and his family also knew, even as they filed an application for county approval of the home burial plan, that it would be rejected, Empire Mortuary Services owner George Leinen said.
Leinen said he agreed to help process Carrie Hamburg's death certificate and the permit application for the disposition of her remains because his mortuary has access to the California Electronic Death Registry System, which makes it difficult for most civilians to process such paperwork without assistance.
"The rejection of this permit was always expected," Leinen said. "It was our understanding that following the rejection ... the family would seek relief through a court."
Interim Public Health Officer Craig McMillan said his office doesn't have the power to authorize home burial "for the simple reason that, even if we did, we would be countermanded anyway."
Their statements came amid spreading debate over a criminal investigation by the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office into the disposition of Carrie Hamburg's remains.
California is one of just two U.S. states that prohibit burials outside of cemeteries. Violations are a misdemeanor under the California Health and Safety Code, Sheriff Tom Allman said.
State regulations permit Californians with the land and financial resources to obtain certification for a family cemetery, though there are complex legal requirements including formal incorporation and designation of a licensed cemetery manager. A minimum endowment of $35,000 for upkeep also is mandated.
But Carrie Hamburg often talked of being buried on the rural 46-acre property, where she lived for a quarter century with her husband of four decades.
In the final weeks before her death from cancer, she wanted to ensure she could be laid to rest there and amended her will, directing her family to bury her at home under the "fundamental right to privacy" granted by the California Constitution.
"No state interest or public health reason prohibits the burial of my body on my family's land, which is a 46 acre parcel in a rural and mountainous section of Mendocino County, other than recording a memorandum notice advising future owners that a unique condition exists on my property," the document states.
"Carrie was never a conventional person," said Dan Hamburg, a one-time congressman and current chairman of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. "This was something that she wanted, and she wanted it right up to the moment of her death."
Hamburg and his attorney, Barry Vogel, would not reveal details of the lawsuit to be filed in next few days, though Hamburg said its "main point ... is to require the county to issue the certificate we seek."
California’s end-of-life law
A patient must be at least 18 years old and terminally ill with no more than six months to live.
Two separate requests must be made to a doctor, at least 15 days apart, with one request in writing.
The doctor must determine the patient has the mental capacity to make the request and discuss alternatives such as pain control.
The physician must refer the patient to a second doctor to confirm the diagnosis and determine mental competence.
Two witnesses must attest to the voluntary request for life-ending drugs. Patients with dementia or severe Alzheimer’s disease likely would be precluded.
If both physicians sign off, the original doctor writes a prescription, likely for Seconal.
Patients must be able to drink the lethal cocktail on their own.
Death certificates will list the cause as the underlying illness, not suicide.