The Prince George's County Council Tuesday passed a bill regulating the operation of the nine privately owned cemeteries in the county. The decision came after a debate in which the measure was roundly criticized by several council members.
In spite of apparent qualms, the council voted 10 to 1 to approve the bill. Only council member Darlene Z. White, who labeled the bill "a redundancy," voted against it.
The bill was proposed and strongly backed by council member Parris N. Glendening, who said it was aimed at George Washington Cemetery in Hyattsville.
The cemetery has been administered by a circuit court since 1962 because of a dispute with the Mount Lebanon Cemetery Association, an organization of 15 Jewish groups that has rights to a large area of the cemetery.
Under the bill, privately owned cemeteries will be required to submit to the public and to the county consumer Protection Commissions each year copies of its policies, practices, rules, regulations and rates. In addition, cemeteries will not be allowed to discriminate against racial, ethnic or religious groups.
A primary reason for the George Washington-Mount Lebanon dispute was a policy of George Washington President Albert F. Houser to charge extra for off-hour burials. This had affected the Jewish groups, since a practice of many in the Jewish religion calls for burial within 24 hours after a death.
The bill brought criticism from several council members.
"I am both amazed and amused by the issue," said council Chairman Francis W. White, who voted for the bill. "Government has come full circle.
"We regulate the living all the time; we regulate them on everything you could imagine. Now, we're following them to the grave."
Council member William B. Amonett passed on his first chance to vote, saying, "This piece of legislation has caused me more consternation than any other since I've been on the council. I don't see any real element of proof in the discrimination charges.
"I see this as a piece of legislation that comes out of a neighborhood squabble. Frankly, I don't know where we're coming from on this."
Later, after the necessary six votes had been cast for the bill, Amonett voted for it.
Glendering pointed out that the council had sought a solution to the dispute three years ago through the county Cemetery Association, but had not found one.
"We've tried to solve this bill without legislation and we still haven't been able to," he said. "We have two major problem areas: consumer fraud and discrimination.
"Under this bill, the Consumer Protection Commission can step into disputes, and this will give it guidelines to work under."
White said she had dealt with the commission twice on such problems and that it had resolved the problems. "That's why this legislation is a redundancy," she said. "It is not needed."