Region 8 News Investigates: Ashes to ashes

Region 8 News Investigates: Ashes to ashes

CRAIGHEAD COUNTY, AR (KAIT)- Death is one of life's inevitabilities.  It comes with one of the toughest decisions a family must face, how best to dispose of the body.  For years in Region 8 and the rest of the country many people have opted for burials.  But, as we discovered, more and more people are opting for cremation.

According to the Arkansas Department of Health, in 2001, only 2-percent of deaths were cremated in Mississippi County.  By 2010, those numbers had more than tripled.  Similar leaps were reported in Poinsett, Randolph, Clay, Greene and Craighead.

In 2011, Arkansas lawmakers tried and failed to pass a bill that would require coroners to undergo more training and to postpone cremations for 48 hours.  With the cremation increase, comes more responsibility for local coroners.  Many lawmakers question whether or not they have enough training to do the job.  Lawmakers worry county coroners might not have enough experience to spot evidence of a crime before a person is cremated.  Just last year, a law passed to provide more money for education and training.  Once someone is elected to the position, it requires them to undergo at least of 16 and at the most 40 hours of training.

"Do I think that's enough?  Probably not," said Arkansas House Representative Homer Lenderman.  Lenderman spoke to Region 8 News about the pressures of county coroners.  He says many people might not even know who their county coroner is, but it's a title that carries a lot of weight.

The thing is, it doesn't take much to run for coroner you must be:

  • 18 years or older.
  • Not a felon
  • A registered voter
  • File to run within the deadline and be elected

Lenderman says a medical background is not necessary.  Since Lenderman is a retired teacher, he believes more knowledge is vital.  "The more education and training they have, the better decision they can make in the field as to cause of death."

It is something Craighead County Coroner Toby Emerson says is valuable when cremation is a factor. "Cremation is a final disposition.  I mean it's final," says Emerson.

Emerson says he will likely work 1,000 death cases this year.  "We're not there to be law enforcement officers, but we work hand-and-hand with them."  His job is to investigate 20 different kinds of deaths, from suicides and murders to industrial accidents and nursing home deaths.  "My first question when I get on a scene with law enforcement is tell me the story," says Emerson.  He says a lot of police officers don't have medical training and that's where he steps in.  "Throw a flag up and say 'hey, something is not right here.  We don't have enough medical history and things don't fit together on our side of it,'" says Emerson.

Many states have passed legislation regarding cremations to make sure there's time to conduct a proper investigation prior to destruction of the body and potential evidence.  "You want to go back and get that individual for evidence, your evidence is gone at that point," explains Emerson.

Emerson says he's never had a question about a cremated individual.  Right now, there is no waiting period in Arkansas.  Our investigation found neither Missouri or Tennessee have legislation in place that can put a hold on the cremation process.  It is a topic State Representative Harold Copenhaver says might be something to look into, "We have to work forward and get all the groups together.  That would be the nursing homes and how they facilitate the body.  That would be the coroners. It's about coming together and if they agree, then yes we'll move forward."

Years ago, residents in Faulker and Palaski Counties voted to appoint the county coroner, which allowed county officials to mandate certain requirements to hold the job.  The other 73 counties chose not to take that route.  Copenhaver says that could be something to consider.

As for Lenderman, "Those are decisions that are made on the county and local level.  So me, I would not support taking out the will of the people."

Lenderman and Copenhaver do agree it is progress.  Lenderman says he does not foresee additional legislation, simply because it's not a front burner issue.  Copenhaver say individual counties could make recommendations on their own, either with job requirements or additional funding for training beyond what is already required.  Lenderman says it could even open the conversation about other legislation to detail specific needs for coroners.

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