Ghoulish Meltdown Over Disintering Bodies At Needles City Cemetery

Slightly more than half way into the second decade of the third millennium a zombie apocalypse is upon us. At the far eastern extreme of San Bernardino County within eyeshot of California’s east coast along the banks of the Colorado River lies the Needles cemetery, which has been in existence since the late 1800s.
Now a proposal to standardize the practice of disintering the remains of souls that have been resting there for decades or even for a century or more has been made.
According to Cheryl Sallis, cemetery operator and secretary to the Needles city manager, a half dozen or more of these disinterments have been executed to date. Typically, the disinterments are said to be requested by family members for the purpose of having the remains relocated to a family plot that may be in the same cemetery or another part of the country. A request has been made to allow two disinterments in the cemetery this week. Left unstated was who requested the action and what would be the intended purpose.
“The City’s cemetery rules and regulations do not address disinterments” Needles City Manager Rick Daniels said. “In checking with the State of California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, state law does not address who must be present during a disinterment as that is an agreement between the cemetery and family of the deceased.”
Sallis, who operates the cemetery, has had a past policy and practice of requiring a California licensed funeral director to be present during the disinterment to execute a witness statement. This is not a rule or regulation that has been adopted by the cemetery board or the Needles
City Council. The party of interest in the disinterments requested that a California
licensed embalmer be used instead.
After a year or more of postponements, a cemetery board meeting was finally held. Sallis urged the board to approve a new provision in the Needles Riverview Cemetery rules and regulations which would allow for disinterments and require the physical presence of a California licensed funeral director. An “advisor” to the cemetery board, Laura Schubert Darrow, who is known to have been employed in the funeral industry, was supportive.
Having been appointed almost a year earlier and objecting to the fact that no meetings were being held, newly sitting board member Ruth Musser-Lopez was among the two out of three board members present, the other being Wilma Baldwin. The third member was absent.
Expressing her concern that “state law, California Code Section 7502 requires that the board of health or a health officer of the city or the city and county in which the cemetery lands are situated be responsible for promulgating such rules and not a cemetery board,” Musser-Lopez objected to the new rules and the action failed. Musser-Lopez also stated that the presence of a funeral director was an added expense that did nothing to protect the health and safety of the employees doing the exhumation. The discussion was entirely upsetting for Sallis who asked that the meeting be adjourned but first wanted the board to vote on the next item which was to increase the board to five members. When Musser-Lopez seconded the motion and then voted against it, causing it to fail, ghoulish spirits flared with Sallis stating that she would ask the city council to dissolve the cemetery board entirely and again asked the meeting to be adjourned. Baldwin adjourned the meeting before the cemetery budget and expenditures, on the agenda next, could be reviewed. According to the staff report for that item, under the new rate structure implemented by the city council incumbents, the cemetery’s water bill has increased substantially from an average of $2,500 a year to an estimated $49,500 in the current fiscal year, leaving a remaining balance of $170, all while no cemetery board meetings were being conducted. Apparently, the city needs the income from the disinterments to pay the water bill.
In two follow-up letters to Daniels who was not present at the meeting, Musser-Lopez expounded upon the board meeting. “Since there were only two board members present at the Needles Cemetery Board meeting yesterday, my vote defeated an action that would potentially add what might be extraordinary and unnecessary cost for disinterment procedures at the Needles Cemetery by requiring permittees to hire a funeral director to be present at the disinterment, meanwhile failing to provide any health and safety protection to our city’s employees who would actually be engaged in the exhumation,” Musser-Lopez said. “There are no rules and regulations with regard to the treatment of the remains after they are exhumed and while still in the cemetery, or transportation out the gate and release of remains from the city and cemetery. My opinion is that city staff should be equipped with standardized written rules and procedures relating to what should be done upon presentation to the city staff of a court order or a county permit by a legally authorized individual. We should also have a fee structure to provide to the permittee or party bearing the court order. Those rules and procedures should be developed by the city based upon county health and safety regulations to protect employees physically engaged in the exhumation as well as professional standards for exhuming remains without impacting surrounding remains.
“Above all else, the health and safety of our city employees should be the city’s priority concern,” Musser-Lopez continued. “City employees involved in an exhumation should be provided with the necessary equipment and tools to comply with federal, state and county health and safety regulations, for example wearing respirators and protective outer garments. The release of mold, fungus, spores, bacteria, viruses etc., from exhuming remains is not uncommon and can be devastating to one’s health. Lung disease known as Valley Fever, which is also called Desert Fever, involving fungus coccidioides, is a known professional risk of archaeologists, particularly those who have worked on excavations involving human burials.”
Musser-Lopez told the Sentinel that “In retrospect, I am looking at the state law which requires a permit or a court order and prohibits any other permit other than that issued by the county health department. However, consent of a family member and the cemetery authority are also factors. Under California Health & Safety Code 7525, the remains of a deceased person may be removed from a plot in a cemetery with both the written consent of a family member and with the consent of the cemetery authority. The code lists the order of priority.”
Lopez went on, “The question now remains—who is the cemetery authority? Is it the city staff or is it the cemetery board? We were asked to approve generalized rules but we were not asked for our consent with regard to the actual disinterments. If asked, I would want to know who was making the request, the relation of that person to the deceased, whether there are any other family members who object and whether or not a permit or court order had been obtained. [City manager] Rick [Daniels] said he would likely have the city attorney review the rules, but intended to allow these disinterments this week despite the failure of the cemetery board vote.”

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