–Josh Slocum, executive director
Keith Tomaszwesky called me about phorid flies, or “crypt flies” or “corpse flies,” as they’re better known. Yes, they’re just what you think they are. Are they normal in a mausoleum, he wanted to know. Yes, and they’re not dangerous.
But Tomaszewsky described a scene involving more than just a few flies at the Chapel of Angels and Light Mausoleum where his mother has been interred for two years. Flies all over the walls. Flies all over the religious iconography. Flies in the chalice used for communion wine. Flies in the face of his niece while the family tried to visit grandma’s crypts, causing the child to scream and beg to leave. This is not normal. Check out this report by WISN, which features an interview with Tomaszewsky—while flies land right on him during taping. Then come back for more.
Back? OK. The mausoleum is owned by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Tomaszwewsky’s mother was a devout Catholic, and while he is not, Tomaszewsky is extremely upset that his mother’s body is in a sacred space overrun with buzzing flies. For 16 months, he says, he’s been trying to get the Archdiocese to do something about this. So far they’ve only installed two ozone devices, Tomaszewsky says, when there should be at least eight.
What further galls him is the disconnect between the cemetery’s proclaimed religious concern for its mission and the nonchalant way they’ve treated the problem. From the Archdiocese website:
We’ll be sending an email to the Archdiocese to alert them to this post and will look forward to their response.
In a Larger Context
Tomazsewsky’s long slog to get the mausoleum cleaned up illustrates a larger point. The reality is religious cemeteries don’t have a better track record of maintenance or fair treatment of consumers than non-religious burial grounds. Discovering untended graves, double-sold plots, or problems like crypt flies upsets any family, but complaints to FCA from families with relatives buried in religious cemeteries come with an extra sense of betrayal. How, they ask, could my synagogue, church, or parish cemetery treat a member this way? Well, religious congregations are made up of human beings; the problem, to my mind, is the expectation that a declaration of high-minded principles will result in their enactment. Religious, secular, and commercial cemeteries all deal in business transactions. They pay staff, they have to meet budgets, etc. Human beings are just as prone to cut corners, cover up mistakes, and act with profit motivations regardless of their religious beliefs.
This is not to say people like Tomaszewky shouldn’t expect decent treatment. It is to say that every death-care-related business regardless of its religious affiliation should be held to the same minimum standards and regulations. Nearly every state exempts religious cemeteries from regulatory oversight, so easily cowed are officials by cries of “religious persecution” or “government interference in the practice of religion” should anyone suggest a faith-based cemetery might have more mundane motivations.
Wisconsin is typical; religious cemeteries are exempted from licensure and regulatory oversight by the state Department of Safety and Professional Services. But what makes a burial transaction costing families thousands of dollars different if the name of the cemetery is Chapel of Angels and Light or Fernlawn Memorial Park? Do grieving religious people deserve less recourse when they’re treated unprofessionally? It would be one thing if any government were proposing to dictate the specific rites and rituals performed at religious cemeteries. Obviously that isn’t the case. It’s quite another to claim “government interference in religion” when regulators propose to require all burial grounds to disclose prices on paper, post rules and regulations, and adhere to transparent and fair business practices. But this is exactly what the Catholic Cemetery Conference argued when it successfully convinced the House Subcommittee on Commerce and Consumer Protection to exempt religious cemeteries from a bill that would have extended the Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule to burial grounds. Despite our protest, religious cemeteries remain exempt from the current version of the bill.
This situation will not change until consumers who are members of churches, synagogues, and houses of worship demand the same basic consumer protections. It is important to remember that one’s interests as a church-goer and a bereaved consumer are not necessarily the same interests motivating the bureaucracy of a religious organization. Faithful consumers and legislators who quickly concede to declarations of pious intent and approve regulatory exemptions for religious burial grounds (even those that run multi-million-dollar operations) should question whether they’ve been mislead by emotional appeals to in-group loyalty. And they should consider whether they want to help ensure their own friends and family will have no regulatory agency to turn to should they be mistreated at the hour of death.