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Legislation to Make Sure Loved Ones Rest in Peace

Capitol Alert News Service

The characters in Robert James Waller’s “The Bridges of Madison County” were distraught when they discovered their mother’s last wish was to have her cremated remains scattered near the bridge where she first met a secret lover. And the Navajo are incensed that a NASA lunar probe will spread the ashes of one of its top scientists on the moon, a symbol sacred to the Indian tribe.

But nothing topped the public fury and dismay that erupted last summer when the ashes of more than 5,200 dead were discovered in dusty boxes in a Contra Costa County warehouse, reopening wounds for family members who thought their loved ones’ last wishes had been carried out long before. Pilot Al Vieira, the man who was to dispose of the ashes, hadn’t had a valid pilot’s license in more than a year and later killed himself when news of his misdeed was revealed.

The outrage led Assemblywoman Lynne Leach (R-Walnut Creek) to introduce legislation last year that would stiffen regulations on people who scatter human ashes. (An estimated 120 people are registered with the Department of Consumer Affairs’ division of Cemetery and Funeral Programs.) Her AB 1314 would require scatterers to show proof of a valid pilot’s or driver’s license, to keep a detailed log of scattered ashes, and to open their storage facilities to random searches by state inspectors.

The bill imposes a 60-day limit on the length of time ashes can be stored. Violators, now subject to only misdemeanor penalties, could face felony charges at the discretion of local prosecutors.

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More than 220,000 people die in the state each year. About 40% of those have opted to be cremated, about twice the national average. California is the only state that outlaws the dispersal of cremated remains, so ashes must be scattered across the state line or more than 3 miles off the coast in international waters. The average cost of scattering a loved one’s ashes ranges from $100 to $200.

The California Funeral Directors Assn., which represents 560 of the 700 funeral directors in the state, supports Leach’s legislation.

“This bill increases the ability of [the Department of Consumer Affairs] to monitor those who scatter ashes and see that they’re actually doing it,” said Bill Vlcek, spokesman for the funeral directors trade association.

Leach’s bill cleared the Assembly Consumer Protection Committee by a 10-0 margin Tuesday and will next face a vote in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. The bill must pass the Assembly by the Jan. 31 deadline or it is dead for the year.

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Meanwhile, Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) has plans to introduce a measure this month that would change the state’s prohibition on scattering ashes. Torlakson’s bill, AB 1705, would allow for the disposal of human ashes on private land with the consent of the landowner. It would also permit the dispersing of ashes as close as 500 yards offshore.

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Bottom Line: A Northern California fire that killed nine children trapped by window security bars in a burning home prompted a bill that would prohibit the sale or rental of property that has window bars without a quick-release feature. Assemblyman Ted Lempert (D-San Carlos) hopes to include a $50,000 fund to help defray the costs of installing the more expensive bars, but the fund would be the first thing to go if the bill faces opposition in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

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Chances: AB 1616, which is supported by a number of firefighters associations, passed the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee by a 7-4 margin Wednesday.

Next Step: The bill goes before the Assembly fiscal committee this month and must pass the Assembly floor by the Jan. 31 deadline.

Details: AB 1616 author Assemblyman Ted Lempert can be reached at (916) 445-7632.


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