Thursday, April 14, 2016

Cremation, Confusion and Solicitation

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
When I cremated Sam McGee

— Robert W. Service, The Cremation of Sam Magee

It is enough to give cremations a bad name, especially after an industry publication said in bold letters that: “Cremation is the New Tradition” suggesting a tradition can be created as quickly as, say, instant oatmeal. The new tradition, however, had a bad spring. In March it was reported that a Bronx funeral home inadvertently cremated the wrong corpse and in April a suit was filed against a mortuary in Rochester that cremated someone who had left specific instructions that following his death he did not want to be cremated. Those kinds of mistakes could of course, happen to anyone and should not put the practice in bad odor. Nonetheless, it is unfortunate when that kind of mistake happens, since depending on the nature of the mistake, it can be hard to correct. The Rochester suit is an example of that. Once cremation of the wrong person has taken place, there is nothing the funeral home can do to correct the error. The Bronx case was different.

In the Bronx case the family had an elaborate open casket service at a church in Harlem in which the wrong person had been placed in the casket attired in the decedent’s clothes and jewelry by the funeral home employees. Although some who viewed the decedent before the service were surprised by her appearance, they attributed that to the fact she had had a serious illness and lots of medical treatments that had altered her appearance. (A small child immediately said the person he was viewing was not his grandmother but his observation was ignored.) It was only after the wrong corpse had been cremated that the error was discovered. Since the wrong corpse had been on display, as it were, over 100 people were attending a service at which the corpse of honor was not in attendance. That was the bad news. The good news was that although the wrong corpse had been cremated, it was possible to cremate the proper corpse after the error had been discovered. The director of the funeral home, who is presumably expert in these matters, was shown a photograph of the two women involved and said “Looks like the same woman to me.” He went on to say to the reporter that: “We’re known for our care, compassion, professionalism, the quality of our work.”

It was nothing more than a coincidence that just as those unfortunate events were being reported I got two almost identical missives a month apart. One came from the National Cremation Society and the other from the Neptune Society. On each envelope was information that might cause those inclined to put such materials in the trash without opening the envelope, to open the envelope. The legend on each envelope that was tantalizing was “Free Pre-Paid Cremation! Details inside.” Like so many beneficiaries of such solicitations, I was sure there was a catch, such as a requirement that I would have to claim my free cremation by a certain date and the offer of a free cremation would expire on that date if I had not. It turned out, upon opening each of the two offers, that the offers were identical and neither offer expired on a certain date. On the other hand, neither contained the promised free cremation. Instead I was give the opportunity to participate in a monthly drawing and and if I won the drawing, I would be entitled to a free cremation no matter how long I chose to postpone the happy event.

The National Cremation Society’s invitation to participate in the monthly drawing is affixed as a P.S. to the letter describing the benefits and advises the recipient that last month’s winner was Martin Miller. The Neptune Society’s invitation to participate in the lottery is in a banner across a corner of the mailing and announces that Laura Williams is last month’s winner. Neptune Society inexplicably adds an apology to its solicitation: “[I]f this letter has reached you at a time of serious illness or death in your family,” the exact time one might think such information might be most useful. The National Cremation Society does not include an apology but does say that among the other benefits it provides are the “care and shelter of the deceased,” benefits that do not immediately come to mind as being of much value following death. Indeed, if cremation is the selling point of the mailing, an offer of free shelter seems almost superfluous.

It was a coincidence that both mailings arrived just as the miscremations were making news. Here’s another coincidence. Although the mailings appear to come from two different companies, the return envelope provided in which to accept the invitation to participate in the lottery that comes from National Cremation Society is addressed to NCS Information Center, P.O. Box 826 in Kutztown, PA and the one to be sent to Neptune Society is addressed to Cremation Information Center, PO Box 827 in Kutztown PA. Who knew Kutztown had such a thriving cremation business?

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Justice Land of Cotton Style

Old times there are not forgotten. . . .
—Dixie, Daniel Decatur Emmett

It was bad news for Alabama, a state that had just gotten two doses of very good news. The first had come from the United States Supreme Court, and the second from Robert Bentley, its governor.

On March 7, 2016, the United States Supreme Court had patiently explained to Chief Justice Roy Moore and his somewhat dull colleagues on the Alabama Supreme Court, that when a same sex couple adopted two children in Georgia and the adoption was valid in Georgia, Alabama did not have the right to opine, as Roy and his colleagues had done, that the adoption was void and not entitled to full faith and credit in Alabama. That was the first piece of good news.

The other piece of good news came on February 23, 2016. On that date the Governor announced that he was introducing the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act. That was great news for those who were incarcerated in Alabama prisons. The need for the Act, although not a cure all for all the ills of the Alabama prison system, was obvious.

According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Alabama prisons have a population that is almost double the number they were designed to accommodate. Instead of holding 13,318 prisoners, the prisons are home to 24,000 prisoners. The reason there is such crowding, according to the Center, is that Alabama incarcerates “more of its citizens, per capita, than all but two other states.” To make matters worse for those incarcerated, Alabama ranks last in in the country in what it spends per prisoner. The governor’s plan, if approved by the legislature, would provide for the construction of four new prisons, and would, as Governor Bentley said when introducing his proposal, make Alabama “a national leader in safe and effective incarceration of inmates.” Although his comments were hyperbolic, there was clearly a need for his proposal. On March 11th and 14th, 2016, shortly before the Alabama State Senate was to begin consideration of the governor’s proposal to issue $800 million in state bonds to fund construction of new facilities, there were two riots at the William C. Holden Correctional Facility. That prison is home to 900 prisoners even though it is designed to accommodate only 581. (It is also home to Alabama’s execution chamber which, from time to time, serves to reduce the overcrowding in the prison.) During the riots two prison officials, including the warden, were stabbed by the inmates.

The governor’s announcement of his proposal was greeted with enthusiasm by those concerned with the state’s prisons, but received a somewhat less enthusiastic response from legislators who are reluctant to authorize the issuance of up to $800 million in bonds to fund the effort. Comments made by legislators, following the governor’s announcement, indicated that the proposal would have a rough time in the legislature. It now turns out that the legislature is probably off the hook. That is good news for the legislators and bad new for prisoners and others who hoped that at long last the state would address severe overcrowding and its attendant problems. It is also bad news for the governor.

On April 5thth the legislature returned from its Easter vacation. It is no longer interested in prisons. It is no longer interested in prison reform. Upon returning from its Easter vacation, a group of Alabama lawmakers said they were introducing articles of impeachment against the governor. They decided to do that because on March 23, 2016, it was publicly disclosed that Governor Bentley had made what were described as “inappropriate and sexually charged remarks” to one of his female aides. Although not articulated, it was hinted that the behavior might have included more than just sexually charged remarks. In Alabama, where perceived sexual misbehavior is taken seriously, news of his behavior shocked his Alabama constituents and their elected representatives.

The governor has admitted that he made made inappropriate remarks to his female aide but denies that there was an affair. He has tried to move beyond the crisis affecting his administration, explaining, as recently as April 4, that he has asked God for forgiveness. It is unknown how God responded, but as of this writing it appears that the legislators may proceed with the impeachment. The process is not complicated.

If a simple majority in the Alabama House of Representatives votes to impeach, a trial will be conducted in the Alabama Senate. The presiding officer at the trial in the senate will be the constitutionally impaired Chief Justice, Roy Moore. In the House proceedings, Mike Hubbard, the speaker of the House, will be the presiding officer. There is a chance, however, that he will not be able to serve. That is because he was indicted on 23 felony counts in 2014 and is going to be tried on those felony counts beginning April 11, 2016. Unlike the governor’s sexual indiscretion that may cost the governor his job, in Alabama, apparently, a 23 count criminal indictment does not have the same effect on a mere legislator. Go figure.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Modest Proposal for the 21st Century

No man’s life, liberty or property is safe
While the legislature is in session.
— Attributed to Judge Gideon J. Tucker in the case of The Estate of A. B. (1866)

This week I use this space to offer a suggestion that will save the taxpayers money, increase the efficiency of government and enable those in Congress to more accurately reflect voters’ wills. The only surprising thing is that no one has come up with this idea before now. Its genesis is the comment of Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, following Antonin Scalia’s death. He said that since it had been 17 months since the voters last had a chance to express their opinions on how the government should function, it would be a mistake for the Senate to consider a Supreme Court nominee before the next election. After carefully considering his comment and the fact that his concerns apply to everything Congress does, henceforth Congress should only meet every other year. If Congress meets only during the 12 months immediately following an election, it can be sure it has a good sense of what the public wants and act accordingly. That will, obviously, make the democratic process more democratic.

One question that may be asked, if my proposal is adopted, is whether Congress can get its work done if it only meets every other year. That can easily be addressed by doubling the number of days it meets in the years it is in session. In 2013 the House of Representative was in session for 126 days, in 2014 113 days and in 2015, 132 days. In 2016 it is scheduled to be in session for 111 days. The Senate, on the other hand, was in session for 164 days and in 2016 is slated to be in session for 149 days.

If the every other year practice were already in effect, in 2017 the House would work 222 days. Although the Senate could not double the number of days it is in session, it is hard to believe it cannot compress its work into one year, Of course, if this is to work, there will have to be some changes in practices in both chambers. Senator McConnell has already shown how that can be done.

He has instructed his colleagues not to waste any time meeting with Merrick Garland, the person selected by the president to fill the seat left vacant by Justice Scalia’s death since too much time has elapsed between the last election and his nomination. That practice can be followed when other presidential nominations are made in election years. In addition, the House and Senate can limit the number of hearings they conduct. Consider the Benghazi hearings.

According to the Benghazi Research Center of October 14, 2015, there have been 32 Congressional Hearings before assorted Senate and House committees at a total cost of more than $20 million. During those hearings 2,780 questions were asked by members of the committees. If Congress only meets every other year it could cut such hearings by half or three quarters without making the hearings less effective since they’ve not produced any useful information thus far. Similarly, the House could save time by not, for example, voting 63 times to repeal Obamacare. One or two votes that fail without there being any change in the make up of the chamber is probably more than enough to make the point. Another way Congress can get all its work done in one year is to quit appointing multiple committees to investigate the same things.

In 2015, three congressional investigations were conducted into events that had not taken place but appeared to have taken place because of a fraudulent video about Planned Parenthood. The individuals who made that fake video have been criminally indicted by a Texas Grand Jury for their actions in producing that video. . After the three Congressional committees found no misconduct by Planned Parenthood, in October 2015 another panel was appointed and it conducted a public hearing on March 1, 2016, two months after creators of the video had been indicted. That sort of a hearing would probably have to be cancelled if Congress were only in session every other year.

Another suggestion is that Congress cut back on the number of hearings it conducts with administration officials. A good example of how that can be done was set in February of this year. On February 9, 2016, President Obama sent Congress his last annual budget proposal. A tradition going back 41 years provides that the House and Senate budget committees give the president’s budget director an invitation to testify about the proposed budget. No sooner was the budget submitted than the respective chairmen stated they would not invite the budget director to testify before their committees. That was probably done to save time and could become the standard under my proposal.

Once adopted, the proposal will require some getting used to. However, it will certainly improve the mental health of the country when the amount of time Congress can embarrass itself and those who elected it, is cut in half.