How Telophase and Neptune Society fought to keep death cheap

Ashes to ashes

Scattering of the ashes at sea costs about $265.
  • Scattering of the ashes at sea costs about $265.
  • Image by Morgan Shannon

Recently, the family of a man who had led a simple life tried to provide him with his last request—a simple funeral and burial. The task became more of a burden than they could have imagined.

Cremains of about ten persons are cast individually over the stem of a Neptune yacht as it cruises slowly about three miles off the coast.

Cremains of about ten persons are cast individually over the stem of a Neptune yacht as it cruises slowly about three miles off the coast.

They entered the market place of the traditional funeral industry with little knowledge of the applicable laws and government benef its. They had no way of gauging the value of the services offered by a person whom they suspected would prey upon their vulnerability in order to gain a greater profit.

The family was fortunate in one way. They had chosen a funeral director in a small, modern mortuary who volunteered information about Veteran Administration and Social Security benefits, and who told them straight out that a hermetically-sealed casket was not worth the money. He neglected to mention, however, that embalming is not required by law—an omission that helped him gross about $1,000.

Len Longanecker, the director of Neptune: "When I used to work at a funeral parlor, nobody ever came back and said how much they liked the casket."

Len Longanecker, the director of Neptune: "When I used to work at a funeral parlor, nobody ever came back and said how much they liked the casket."

Upon leaving the funeral home, the family sought a burial plot in a Catholic cemetery, a religious preference they later learned usually costs more than a non-Catholic memorial park. At the cemetery, they were chauffeured in a limousine by a morosely attired, milquetoast-mannered employee, who cruised around the grounds at a tedious five miles per hour and disclosed plot prices in a sullen monotone. His little dirge gained the cemetery another $1,000.

By day's end, this simple funeral and burial had taken on a $2,000 price tag, the national average according to Federal Trade Commission statistics.

Last year, the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG). a non-partisan and non-profit research organization, published a 35-page study of the San Diego funeral industry. This study written by former CALPIRG director Margaret Philpott Pearson, asserts, among other things, that the traditional funeral industry fixes prices, charges exorbitant fees, and escapes consumer-oriented restraints under the prejudiced-eye of the state regulatory boards.

When Pearson and her co-researchers, disguising themselves as consumers, contacted 31 San Diego funeral homes, they found that 22 of them provided professional services fees within $100 of each other.

"This figure is the more intriguing," Pearson wrote, "when an observer considers that only $31 separates the professional service charge(d) by one funeral home which handled 1557 cases and another funeral home that did only 91 cases in 1974. Despite differences in fixed costs, CALPIRG finds it very hard to understand how the overhead charges which result in prices charged to consumers can be so similar among funeral homes handling such (a) varied number of cases per year."

Price fixing and other questionable activities escape detection, according to Pearson, because members of the regulatory boards are also funeral industry licensees.

"The Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers is composed of eight members, five of whom are licensees of the Funeral Directors and Embalmers Board, i.e.. members of the profession being regulated." Pearson stated. "Because the Board is composed primarily of funeral directors, there can be a conflict of loyalties between the special interests of the industry and the interests of the consumer that the Board is supposed to protect."

Although the six-member Cemetery Board—a second state regulatory agency—did not fall within the scope of Pearson’s report, it hail received similar criticism. The Cemetery Board has four licensed members of the funeral industry within its fold.

As a result of these findings and charges, the Federal Trade Commission and the state legislature are considering measures to reform the funeral industry.

The FTC. which held a nine-day hearing in Los Angeles a month ago. has proposed 13 new guidelines to regulate the funeral industry nationwide. If adopted, the regulations would directly affect California's Funeral Directors and Embalmers Board, but not the Cemetery Board.

On the state level, the Senate and Assembly are studying separate bills that would put more public members on the two regulatory boards and thus strip away some of the influence of the licensed members. Those proposals are for the future, however. For the present, the CALPIRG report includes information on an alternative to the traditional funeral, a relatively new and inexpensive method for disposing of human remains—direct cremation.

It was nearly 25 years ago that two San Diego men faced the prospect of death and presented this alternative. The two men. Tom Sherrard and Thomas V. Webber, first tried working through the then-new San Diego Memorial Society, which had been founded by a Unitarian minister as a tool to gain leverage in the traditional funeral industry. The year was 1952.

About 20 years later, Sherrard and Webber decided they could no longer work with the Society because they and the consumer still had to deal with morticians and cemetery directors. So, in 1971 Sherrard, an attorney, and Webber, a biochemist, set out to by-pass the traditional funeral trade and eliminate what Sherrard called a psychological dependence on the industry.

In seeking to convey a reasonable and logical approach to death, they chose the name Telophase, a scientific term for the last cell division, and they began advertising their concept of direct cremation.

Direct cremation was viewed then, and maybe now as a radical alternative to the traditional funeral and burial. According to the CALPIRG report, a direct cremation usually involves the following services, for which a consumer will be charged one relatively low price: Pick-up of the deceased at the place of death, preparation and filing of the necessary papers and forms, transportation of the deceased to the crematory, cremation, pick-up of the cremated remains, and finally, scattering of the ashes at sea.

The typical direct cremation with the scattering of the ashes at sea costs about $265. A direct cremation with interment of the ashes in a columbarium or ash plot costs from $660 to $690, according to CALPIRG.

If the consumer chooses the "wrong" direct cremation business or is unwilling to forgo some of the traditional "extras," these relatively low figures may rise dramatically.

"If a cremation occurs after a funeral service," Pearson wrote in her study,"there will be little savings to survivors. Real savings occur when cremation is used as the only final ceremony. In any case, arrangements must be made through a mortuary, San Diego Memorial Society, or a cremation society."

Besides the Telophase Society, which handled 628 cremations in 1974, there are three businesses that regularly advertise direct cremation services: Cremation Services of San Diego, a branch of Greenwood Memorial Park formerly known as Dial-a-mation (81 cremations): Cypress View, operating out of a traditional funeral home (523 cremations); and the Neptune Society (23 cremations).

Cremation Services and Cypress View, created in direct response to Telophase, make no attempt to exclude traditional concepts, and a consumer must firmly pursue a no-extras direct cremation in order to obtain one. The flat rate for direct cremation is about $250, but a person will be tempted to purchase a niche in a columbarium, a memorial service and other costly extras.

The Neptune Society, founded in San Pedro in 1972 and opened in San Diego in 1974, offers a Telophase-type cremation and a simple service at sea for $255—$5 more than Telophase charges. Both Neptune and Telophase charge an additional membership fee of $15 for one person or $25 for an entire household. At Neptune, unlike at Telophase, the consumer will also be tempted to purchase chapel services, memorial folders, and other extras.

The Neptune Society's cramped quarters are located at the back of a courtyard lined with tawdry, single-story offices. Inside, where one might expect the elegant decor, soft lighting, and hushed voices of a traditional funeral home, is merely a dingy, sand-hued, I5x20-foot room with simple, inexpensive furnishings. Two nondescript prints hang on the walls.

Len Longanecker, the director of Neptune, appears to be in his middle fifties. His face is round and topped with a thatch of salt-and-pepper hair. A Vandyke of the same color adorns his chin. He shuns the somber dress of the stereotyped funeral director. Although he is a licensed funeral director with many years experience in embalming, he says he prefers the simple title of "director."

Longanecker explains his practical working philosophy this way: "We're not out to convert the world. People who still want a copper casket to accompany their Revere Ware ... well, if they want it, that's quite all right. But when I used to work at a funeral parlor, nobody ever came back and said how much they liked the casket.I believe a funeral should cost as little as possible. Let the living make use of the money."

Even though he advances this non-traditional philosophy, Longanecker continues to believe that a memorial service is necessary for the "cremains" — trade parlance for human ashes. The services, which he believes separate Neptune from Telophase and give dignity to the trade, are offered even when a family chooses not to go out to sea for a scattering.

When a family does not attend the scattering, the cremains of about ten persons are cast individually over the stern of a Neptune yacht as it cruises slowly about three miles off the coast. While the ashes are scattered, flowers are thrown overboard and a passage from the Bible, poetry, or prose is read. If the survivors wish, they may rent the yacht for a private service conducted by Longanecker or a minister of the family's choice. A family of four may rent one of Neptune's Coast-Guard-licensed yachts for $275. It costs $300 for up to 20 persons and $350 for up to 40 persons.

At present, the cremation itself is performed at crematories in Los Angeles and San Diego. But Longanecker is anxiously awaiting the construction of a modern, total-service Neptune facility to be built in San Diego next year. The new complex, he says, will be the first self-contained cremation facility. It will include a holding facility for bodies, an office, a chapel, and a unique Swedish "retort"—the furnace used to cremate bodies—which, according to Longanecker, is 15 years ahead of American designs.

The cremation begins, Longanecker explains, by placing the unembalmed body in a cheaply-constructed, cardboard container. Under the American system, the body and container are pushed into a cool retort by means of a long pole with a flat base. The retort is closed, fired-up, and put to the task of reducing the body to a small deposit of calcium. Three-and-a-half hours later, after the retort has been allowed to cool, the cremains are scraped from the front of the retort and placed in a holding receptacle.

Under the Swedish system, the corpse and casket are mechanically placed into the front of an already heated retort. In just 20 minutes the retort reaches its maximum heat—2.800 degrees Fahrenheit. Due to the quick heating process, smoke and ash created by American models are greatly reduced. After an hour-and-a-half in the retort, calcium bone deposits are scraped out of the back of the Swedish model through a small opening. The rear-exit concept eliminates the need to cool the retort. Finally, the cremains are placed in a receptacle that pulverizes them and then automatically drops them into a transporting receptacle.

The speed and efficiency of the Swedish retort are not the only factors that excite Longanecker. He hopes the retort and accompanying facility will placate the state regulating boards, which he claims continually harass the direct cremation businesses, and will also give a scare to Telophase, his chief competitor. For the time being, Longanecker does his best to fend off the state boards and his competitor by reproving them harshly.

Telophase, in Longanecker's view, lacks professionalism, is not fully licensed, and fails to treat corpses with respect. "They have a bad attitude," he claims. They don't do anything at sea. We handle the remains in a dignified manner."

Longanecker is angry with the boards because they badger his business by delaying the issuance of licenses, requiring separate holding facilities for each Neptune outlet, and by condoning misrepresentations made by traditional funeral directors about direct cremation services. The Funeral Directors and Embalmers Board refuses to reprimand directors who lie to consumers by telling them that bodies are crudely handled by direct cremation businesses, says Longanecker.

By harassing the direct cremation business and lobbying for laws which aid the traditional industry, the boards harm the consumer and the industry, he asserts. The boards have abrogated what they were intended to do, which is protect the industry. Instead they are aiding the traditional industry and themselves by allowing illegal and improper activities to continue within their midst."

The boards and traditional industry members dislike the direct cremation business because, as Longanecker points out, it has such a low overhead that it can afford to compete at much lower prices. "Regular funeral directors go on buying bigger and better offices, chapels, mausoleums, and shiny new hearses. These become built-in expenses that must be paid for by the consumer.

"Although funeral directors now say they, too, offer direct cremation^at low cost, it's a fallacy. They'll go broke."

One traditional funeral home that now advertises direct cremation is the Cypress View Mortuary at 3953 Imperial Avenue. Cypress View began offering direct cremation in 1972 in response to Telophase.

"We had offered it before, but the charges were a little bit higher," says, funeral director John A. Levorson, slim and youthful, and a 15-year veteran of the industry. "We're in a position where we can offer that because the crematory is right here. We're able to handle that in our overhead."

He says a direct cremation, including burial at sea, embalming, and a transporting receptacle, costs $250. In comparison, a traditional funeral at Cypress View costs a minimum of $700, not including burial flowers, certificates, a minister, and the $75 charge for cremation within the traditional service.

Memorial services, a feature which Levorson highly recommends, involve an additional charge. He endorses memorial services out of a firm conviction that human remains must be treated with dignity.

"A body could be put in a trash can and picked up by the garbage truck company on Tuesday morning, and for some people that would be all right,"says Levorson. "Others view a body as having belonged to a human being, and that it is appropriate to deal with it with some respect."

The majority of his clientele, relates Levorson, do not want "the cheapest way out, but rather some psychological and physical acts that will help them to face the "reality of death."

In contrast to Longanecker, who maintains that a formal display only causes deeper, longer-lasting grief, Levorson believes that people must face "the reality of death, "and that the best way is through a life celebration or memorial service.

Levorson dovetails this traditional philosophy with a keen business sense. The combination allows him to aid the less fortunate in one instance, then make a large profit from the affluent in another.

"You don't operate a business at a loss," he remarks. "And naturally we're in business to stay in business. But if there is no money involved, we will never refuse to have funeral services.

"We never want anyone to come in here and buy more than they can afford. And I have talked people down to less expensive caskets. I also have let them upgrade because I felt they could afford it and it would help them."

' Like Longanecker, Levorson is critical of the regulating boards and. to a lesser extent, of Telophase—but for different reasons. "It’s my feeling that Telophase doesn’t do anything different than we do as far as handling human remains. Therefore, I think it's unfair that the state puts certain requirements upon us and not on them."

He says Telophase, unlike a traditional funeral home, is not required to have a licensed embalmer or an operating home, and this results in a disservice to the public. The public is hurt, he believes, because the looser requirements lead to lower health standards.

Levorson is also critical of the regulatory boards for changing the laws to suit Telophase, which he thinks should have had to comply with the existing laws.

The image painted of Tom Sherrard by his detractors and competitors is that of a cold-hearted, ruthless businessman who. as director of Telophase, steals dignity from death.

One critic even charged that Sherrard had purchased for Telophase’s use an old animal crematory, where the bone fragments of dogs and cats could be found amid the cremains. The same critic told of a Telophase employee who unloaded a number of bodies at the side of the highway and left them there while he went to get a flat tire fixed. (Only the latter tale is true.)

And Deputy City Attorney Dennis Avery suggested that Sherrard, as an attorney, had forsaken compromise with the traditional funeral industry and the regulatory boards just in order to set legal precedent.

Avery, handsome, youthful, and articulate, advanced rapidly in the City Attorney's office after graduating from California Western School of Law in 1970. As head of the Consumer Fraud Division, he became entangled in a lengthy court battle with Telophase. Avery had filed suit after receiving what he terms a rare complaint from the Cemetery Board. The board charged that Telophase had failed to meet certain licensing provisions in the Cemetery Act:

The city's young, bearded advocate realizes that the complaint may have been filed by the board in order to harass Telophase, but he also criticizes Sherrard for dragging out the case over a two-year period.

'The judge gave him every damn chance to succeed," Avery says. "I wanted them to get their license. I wanted them to succeed, but they dragged their feet."

Although critical of Sherrard and Telophase. Avery is quick to support the direct cremation business and its criticism of the regulatory boards. The consumer benefits from a variety of alternatives in interment. However, the existing laws comprehend the traditional type of burial, which thwarts innovation." Innovation is thwarted because the regulatory boards are so supportive of the traditional industry, according to Avery.

"The regulating agencies are really in bed with each other. Public complaints going to state agencies are just absorbed. The complaints never get to the D.A.. and even inspectors get into trouble when they report discrepancies . . . . Problems are rarely referred out for legal action (because) the regulating agencies are trying to solve the problems themselves.

The industry and the regulating agencies are very often one and the same. Therefore, any violations simply do not come to our attention."

Cemetery Board Executive Director John W. Gill and his counterpart on the Funeral Directors and Embalmers Board. David T. Buck, deny Avery's charges. Buck, speaking from his office in Sacramento, was the most vehement: 'To say (that the agencies are in bed with the industry) is a bunch of hooey. Tell me where and how? We're being found guilty by association."

Buck denies that the boards changed the laws to fit the direct cremation societies or were harassing them in order to force them out of business: "Ask them if they have been legislated out of business. Ask how the boards have harassed them. This peer group issue is a motherhood and apple pie question, but no one has ever come up with a specific instance."

Buck admits that the board has had no complaints against Telophase since initiating the court fight, but charges that Sherrard wanted Telophase to be regulated by the County Health Department, instead of the regulatory boards, in order to escape strict oversight.

Telophase is realistic." Buck says. "It wanted County Health . . . because a local official would call first and announce inspections. We won't do that."

According to Buck. Dr. Julius B. Askew—prominent former director of the County Health Department—was the local official who had the arrangement with Sherrard. But Dr. Donald G. Ramras. assistant director of San Diego County Public Health and an associate of Askew before he retired, denied that the Health Department or Dr. Askew ever announced inspections or engaged in questionable activities.

The combined offices of Telophase and Sherrard's law practice are located in the Equitable Life Assurance Building at 1333 Camino Del Rio South. Sherrard, a man with a pleasant manner, quick wit, and the dignified, graying-haired appearance of a Congressman, is fully prepared to speak in his own defense.

He readily affirms his disdain for the traditional funeral industry and the philosophy of death which he claims they perpetuate.

"Who do they think they're kidding?" Sherrard asks. "When a body is in a box, it is not an active, living person. It's a corpse and everyone's memory is of that. I wouldn't be caught dead in a casket."

This philosophy got Telophase into immediate trouble with the funeral industry and the regulatory boards. As Sherrard tells it. the crematory with which he had contracted refused to take Telophase's first body because "Sacramento" informed the crematory it would lose its license if it dealt with him. Court action finally forced specific performance of the crematory contract.

That battle now seems only a minor scuffle to Sherrard. who maintains that Telophase soon became the victim of "selective prosecutions" initiated by the regulatory boards. It was these prosecutions, he says, which forced Telophase to set legal precedent. "I didn't want to do it. I still don't want to do it. When we do that, we're not expanding our business."

The court battles have been centered in three broad areas.

First, Telophase was told by the Funeral Directors and Embalmers Board that it must comply with the state licensing procedures for mortuaries. Sherrard says that although Telophase's suborganizations recently became licensed, the original San Diego and Los Angeles centers would go to court soon to argue that the licensing requirements as applied to Telophase violate the federal Constitution.

Next, the Cemetery Board demanded that Telophase comply with state laws regulating traditional cemeteries. An Orange County court recently held that a "body crematory" does not fall within the statutes which control crematories located in cemeteries. Sherrard regards this ruling as a partial victory for Telophase.

Finally, Telophase was sued by the Cemetery Board in the 1972 action for failing to hire a licensed broker. The state law forbids the offering of interment services without a broker; so. to comply with this law. Telophase has refrained from final dispositions. Persons using Telophase's services must take the cremains home or give them to a church for placement in a niche or scattering at sea.

Besides the legal problems. Sherrard has also encountered, a general reluctance to accept Telophase's unsentimental view of death. The traditional funeral industry, he believes, has thoroughly indoctrinated the public.

"Death makes a joke out of life, but until Woody Allen came along, no one could appreciate it," he says. "Either you treat a dead body like a dead body or like a person. If people want to play that game and can afford it, let them."

In order to stop the traditionalists from proliferating that game, the public must become divorced from the funeral industry, according to Sherrard. "You don't let an alcoholic keep smelling booze all the time if you want to straighten him out. I feel that people tend to treat a dead body as though it were still a person in active consciousness. Meanwhile, the traditional funeral industry bases its business on this falsity."

To avoid all the rigmarole of the funeral industry. Sherrard has conceived a new plan for disposing of a human body without cost or industry interference.

'This is how to do it for free,"Sherrard says. "Put the body in a station wagon in your garage. Go down to the County Health Department and have the next of kin fill out a death certificate. Get a permit for burial. Then drive into the publicly-owned cemetery near Oceanside, dig a hole, and put the body in.

"And you know, I think it's legal."

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