Sue Evenwel, a Republican activist from Mt. Pleasant, spoke to the group at the Light House/Old Brick Creamery about the board, to which she was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. She began her remarks by quipping that "I know it's a subject you're dying to learn more about. . .I know where all the bodies are buried, maybe with the exception of (long-missing labor leader) Jimmy Hoffa."
Ms. Evenwel said her 7-member commission licenses about 4,500 funeral directors and 1,500 funeral homes, which are inspected every two years. She also said it regulates about 150 crematories and some cemeteries.
In addition, she said, funeral directors and embalmers must have continuing education, and her commission's regulatory authority is designed "to protect the public."
The group levies fines, revokes licenses, and also regulates pre-need plans with the insurance and banking industries, Ms. Evenwel noted.
"It is a very interesting commission to be on," said the speaker, who said she knew nothing about the funeral industry when she was named to the panel in 2006. "We meet (quarterly) to make a decision on terrible things."
For example, Ms. Evenwel noted, a woman had bought a cemetery plot for her teen-age son from a man who turned out not to own the land.
"Her son isn't there. The plot isn't there. We don't know where her son is," Ms. Evenwel said.
She also said some persons are pretending to be funeral directors by going around in their cars and operating out of the trunk.
And among the board's duties, she said, is deciding whether a person has too many convictions for driving under the influence to become a funeral director.
The commission interviewed one man who wanted to be a director although he said he was blind and was on parole for a double homicide. "Where does he get off thinking we would ever approve him?" Ms. Evenwel asked.
One practice that alarms Ms. Evenwel is the harvesting of body parts and body tissue, which she said has become an issue "in the black market."
That is different from taking organs for transplant, which must be done immediately, she said. One man contracted with corrupt funeral homes, and placed body parts like ankles and jawbones in freezers for later transplant without revealing they were diseased, she said..
She told those present that if they were donating body tissue, "make sure who you're dealing with. . .check them out."
Concerning her commission's work with cemeteries, Ms. Evenwel said about 30 graveyards of historical significance have become land-locked, preventing owners from accessing them to do cleanup, so "we try to intermediate between the (land)owners and the families."
Many are "little tiny cemeteries" where the ability to enter and exit is needed, she said. Some landowners have blocked families from visiting, although that is not permitted, she said.
Ms. Evenwel also noted there are now "green cemeteries" which require green enbalming chemicals "that don't hurt the earth." Such graveyards ban anything in caskets that is metal or synthetic, she said.
"Even crematories are going green," using a corrosive substance and water to wash and disintegrate bodies, which are reduced to residue without burning, Ms. Evenwel noted.
But the speaker said crematories may be regulated slightly more in the future as "you can have a 14-year-old doing cremations," which opens up the possibility of lawsuits. She said the minimum age may be raised to 18.
In addition, she said crematories are regulated because "you wouldn't want to be cremated with a dog or a cow."
"Cremation is growing significantly, and it has to do with the cost of funerals," she said. The average funeral cost in Texas now, she said, is $6,900, not including expenses for the cemetery plot and opening the gravesite.
As for those buried in cemeteries, she noted, caskets must be labelled in case flood waters wash them out of the ground.
If someone lives outside city limits, Ms. Evenwel pointed out, he/she can get their own backhoe; designate a piece of their land as their family cemetery; register it with the county clerk free of charge; and keep records.
"You just dig the hole," which requires at least six feet of dirt on top of the body, she said. Even a corpse wrapped in a blanket can be legally buried with no casket in such cases, Ms. Evenwel noted.
The bodies need not be processed through a funeral home, but a death certificate must be obtained, she added.
In addition, she pointed out, "you can have your (ashes from) your loved one turned into a diamond"--a service offered by several funeral homes.
One business sells $50 kits for building one's own coffin, she added. And there are now "memorial videos right on the tombstone" run by solar power; gravesite visitors can press a button to see the "serenity panel," Ms. Evenwel said.
A dead person's loved ones can also get vases with a "beautiful swirl" of the ashes, she added.
Ms. Evenwel said her commission started in 1903 as a regulatory board for embalmers, a practice that became common during the Civil War. Embalmers teamed with casket builders, and furniture stores would bill themselves as a "purveyor of fine furniture and funeral services," she noted.
Flowers were sent to mask the odor of decaying flesh, she added.
In addition to discussing the commission's work and modern-day trends related to the funeral industry, Ms. Evenwel also offered some practical advice for the Republican women's group.
She said getting a pre-need plan is "far thinking." She also pointed out that funeral homes must have a published price list and there can be a "substantial difference" between different homes' prices at a time when you "make a financial transaction under the stress of a loved one just dying."