GUEST OPINION: A mountain of rules for home burial

At her request, Carrie Hamburg was buried on rural land she and her husband of 40 years owned and loved ("Mendocino County supervisor's lawsuit challenges state on home burials," Wednesday). In the old days, this request could be met with a simple ceremony and a shovel. With today's legalities, one can literally be buried in a mountain of red tape.

Not long ago, the family of a prominent member of our community asked for help in fulfilling his request that he be buried on his land. We quickly put together a team of several local lawyers, bankers, county officials, family and friends and embarked on a task that soon became so complicated as to be surreal.

After reading many provisions of the Health and Welfare and Business and Professions codes, I found my way to the state Department of Consumer Affairs in Sacramento. Located in a former basketball arena, now remodeled as a giant office building, here is a monument to enterprise and regulation. Corridors are lined with the offices of various regulatory bureaus. There's one for barbers and cosmetology, one for acupuncture, one for court reporters, one for guide dogs, one for hearing aids, one for athletics, and the list goes on. And there's one for burials.

The woman I worked with from the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau couldn't have been more helpful. She came over years ago from the Bureau of Nursing and admitted she, too, had had a steep learning curve. She warned that even Michael Jackson (who wanted to be buried at his Neverland ranch) didn't make it in time, and the Annenbergs took more than six months to arrange for Walter's final resting place (he, the friend of presidents). Nevertheless, she forwarded a checklist of some two dozen requirements necessary to achieve a certificate of authority.

It turns out that the requirements to bury just one person on his or her own land are very much the same as creating a public cemetery where you might inter hundreds. These include the establishment of a cemetery corporation and an endowment fund. Officers are fingerprinted and subject to FBI clearance. The parcel must be properly zoned, mapped and a deed dedicating it for cemetery purposes recorded. A licensed cemetery manager who doesn't work for any other cemetery must be located and hired (if a friend or family member wants to assume this role, a 100-question test is given once one's fingerprints are cleared. Unfortunately, there is no manual such as you would have for a driver's test, so answers are derived from common sense and a careful reading of the many relevant sections of the Health and Welfare code covering everything from urns to body parts).

A business plan is required, setting forth how the endowment funds will be used to maintain the site in perpetuity, along with an endowment care trust agreement. Of course, bank accounts must be set up and assurances provided by the bank that at least $35,000 is available at all times. One must certify that future burials, if any, will be accompanied by a check for $4.50 per square foot per grave, $70 per niche and $220 per crypt (with a 50 percent discount for a companion).

Statements must be verified setting forth the compensation of officers and the cemetery manager. After all this, a state inspector will visit the site and check yet another list of requirements that includes signage, landscaping, water availability and the credentials of the cemetery manager. Only then can the all-important certificate of authority be issued, permitting the interment.

Thanks to the hard work of our team and genuinely kind help from dedicated civil servants at Sonoma County and the bureau, we accomplished our goal in time for a fine and beloved person to be laid to rest according to his wishes. Hopefully, the efforts of Carrie Hamburg's family to fulfill her last wishes will be met with the same support from all concerned.

Mendocino County has a long history of drawing attention to how far afield the complexities and absurdities of modern life have taken us from the simpler ways of the past. While all would agree some rules are in order, there are times when the buildup of law and regulation goes far beyond any definable purpose. This is particularly onerous when the shear cost makes compliance unreachable for people of modest means.

Doug Bosco, a former North Coast representative in the state Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives, is general counsel and an investor with Sonoma Media Investments, owners of The Press Democrat.

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