PHOENIX (AP) — State regulators said Friday they have launched an investigation following the discovery of two sprawling pits of human skulls, ribs, femurs and other bones dumped at an Arizona cemetery.
Investigators want to find out if the remains were handled properly by a cremation business that was contracted to dispose of them for a medical research company.
A visitor to the Memory Gardens Cemetery in Bisbee contacted authorities after discovering the pits while looking for a friend's headstone. The pits contained countless human bones — some with artificial knees and hips still attached — and were so large it took several tarps to cover each one while investigators examined the scene.
Bisbee Police Sgt. Benjamin Reyna said authorities have concluded no laws were broken, even though they found the discovery disturbing.
"It goes against, ethically, of what you think should be done with remains of humans," Reyna said.
But Alexander Estrada, compliance administrator for the Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, said a regulatory investigation will be conducted to determine if the cremations were handled properly. After a cremation is conducted, bone fragments and other hard remains are to be pulverized into ash, Estrada said.
Police said Paul Parker, owner of the cemetery and the cremation business, told authorities he had been disposing of remains from medical researchers in his cemetery for five years.
Messages left for Parker weren't immediately returned Friday. But Parker's wife, Virginia Parker, told The Associated Press the pits were part of a "scattering grounds" for remains located 100 yards from graves.
"It's in a separate area, and it's not in the cemetery proper where the graves are," she said in a telephone interview.
Virginia Parker said the scattering grounds are where remains from donors are kept when their families don't want them returned. "When it's full, we cover it and then open another," she said.
She believes police and reporters were trying to make a big deal of the pits.
Ron Adair, president of a business that owns six southern Arizona funeral homes and is not affiliated with Parker, said it's very uncommon to see remains treated like those found in the pits at Memory Gardens Cemetery.
"It wouldn't be an industry practice," said Adair, whose family has been in funeral home business since 1956. "Otherwise, you would have these things pop up everywhere. That's not the case. The industry standard would be to dispose of them in a better and more proper way."
Typically, bones left over after cremation are pulverized, with the largest remaining pieces the size of small bits of gravel. When families don't want them, the cremated remains usually are raked into a cemetery's "scattering garden" consisting of white gravel or small gravel, Adair said.
Authorities said the donated human remains found at Parker's cemetery were handled previously by a medical research firm whose name they haven't been able to determine. They added there was no need to identify the remains. The two open pits, along with the remains, are now covered up with dirt.
The woman who discovered the pits Sept. 30 found them 15 yards from the headstone she was searching for.
While the Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers is investigating the cremation process at Parker's operation, it is unclear whether any state regulators will examine the disposal of the remains in open pits. The board has no jurisdiction over cemeteries.
The state's Department of Real Estate regulates the sale of cemetery plots but not the operation of cemeteries, agency spokeswoman Mary Utley said.
The Arizona Department of Health Services doesn't have jurisdiction because the pits pose no risk to public health, said spokeswoman Laura Oxley.
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