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In Michigan, Not Even the Dead Are Safe

In Michigan, Not Even the Dead Are Safe

By THOMAS LYNCH

Milford, Mich.

THE big cemetery with the name like a golf course out on the Interstate
across from the mall was seized by a state conservator this winter.
Seems someone took the money — $70 million in prepaid trust funds — and
ran. It’s one of those theme park enterprises with lawn crypts and cheap
statuary and an army of telemarketers calling up locals in the middle of
dinner to sell us all our “commemorative estates.”

“You don’t want to be a burden to your children, do you?” So says the
“memorial counselor” with the sales pitch and the flip chart and the
forms to “sign here” on the bottom line — the bargain-in-the-briefcase
peace of mind. Why not? I say, though never out loud. My children have
all been burdens to me. Isn’t that what the best of life is — bearing
our burdens honorably?

What is known for certain is that an Oklahoman with oil interests
conspired to buy Michigan’s largest consortium of graveyards from a
local lawyer who’d bought them from a Canadian mergers-and-acquisitions
company that went belly-up in the late 1990s for all of the usual reasons.

According to Michigan’s attorney general, Mike Cox, the Oklahoman,
Clayton Smart, took over 28 Michigan cemeteries in August 2004 from the
lawyer, Craig Bush. Over the next couple of months, Messrs. Smart and
Bush allegedly managed to remove the millions that luckless consumers
had prepaid for graves and markers and perpetual care under the
none-too-watchful gaze of the state’s regulators and auditors, who
finally noticed, 18 months later, that the money was gone.

On Thursday, Mr. Cox announced that Mr. Smart has been charged with 39
felony counts, including racketeering and embezzlement: “My goals are
clear: protect the public interest, secure the operation of these
cemeteries, and criminally charge those who are responsible for
embezzling this money.”

The local version of a national cartoon, the “Smart-and-Bush-scam” seems
a perfect metaphor for life in southeastern lower Michigan — another of
those “heckuva job” imbroglios involving robber barons, the fecklessness
of government agencies, and better-late-than-never comeuppances. It’s a
kind of commemorative Enron: the money gone missing while the erstwhile
state cemetery commissioner, who was either incompetent, negligent or
complicit, gets “reassigned” within the Department of Labor and Economic
Growth.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments’ recent projections on
labor and economic growth call for the worst economic forecast of our
lifetimes. The news for Detroit automakers goes from bad to worse. Home
sales are slumping, unemployment is up, state workers may soon be sent
home without pay, and just as we are catching new criminals, we’re
letting others go because we can’t afford to keep state prisons open.

Our National Guard units, haggard after multiple deployments, have lost
nearly 60 percent of their ready reserve of equipment and personnel, and
another local family has just buried a son sent home in a closed coffin,
under the radar, lest anyone see. The flag outside the funeral home is
permanently at half-mast and a new crop of presidential candidates are
telemarketing now — dialing for dollars so they can buy airtime to tell
us all how, the shape of the planet notwithstanding, they’ve got a
program to make it all better.

Out here in Middle America, not even the dead and gone can rest in
peace. Still, we pray for peace and carry on. Like politics, all
funerals are local.

Thomas Lynch, a funeral director, is the author, most recently, of
“Booking Passage.”


Copyright 2007
<http://www.nytimes.com/ref/membercenter/help/copyright.html> The New
York Times Company <http://www.nytco.com/>

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