There is a time to weep, a season to mourn. But there is not supposed to be a second time to do it again from the beginning. Last Tuesday night, about 100 alumni of grief filed into the Oakwood Baptist Church in Walker County, Ga. Clutching candles and tissues, they were forced to revisit the rituals of death. This time they prayed not for the souls of the dead but for the bodies--the 298 (and counting) men, women and at least one infant strewn about the landscape of a remote northwest Georgia crematory.
Instead of being cremated, as promised and paid for, these families' relatives had been stacked like firewood in piles of a dozen or more, jammed into sheds and buried haphazardly in the backyard of the crematory owners. For the rest of the week the families took the urns they thought contained their loved ones' ashes to the Walker County Civic Center in hopes of putting them to rest--again. "One woman had her mama in her lap. The next one had her uncle. The next one had her brother," recalls Gary Guy, 50, who had come from Ringgold, Ga., to track down his mother-in-law's body. "How in the world could this have happened?"
While the scene at the Noble, Ga., crematory is a uniquely grisly spectacle--more than 500 forensic experts, anthropologists and other investigators expect to spend the next eight months and many millions of dollars extracting bodies in every stage of decomposition--it did not come as a complete surprise to those who study the death industry. For years critics have been calling for better state and federal oversight of such businesses. While the vast majority of funeral directors and crematory operators do their job honorably, there is plenty of room for abuse, and every so often a scandal spurs a flurry of proposed regulations. But in most cases they don't go anywhere or, if they do, they don't get enforced. Although cremation has been growing in use at a rate of about 5% a year, few states have laws or bureaucracies to keep an eye on the process. Most people don't want to deal with death until it happens, and not even then.
On Feb. 15, an anonymous caller told the local office of the Environmental Protection Agency to check out the Tri-State Crematory in Noble. Authorities spoke to Ray Brent Marsh, 28, who had taken over the operation from his father in 1996. He told them the incinerator had broken a while back. Each day thereafter brought new appalling discoveries of bodies, some dating back 15 years or more. Fifty-seven corpses were found crammed into six burial vaults. (Each vault is designed to hold just one adult-size coffin.) So far, a skull and torso have been found in the Marshes' pond, where locals used to fish.
Nobody is more at a loss to explain the horrific trove than the people who live in Noble and have known the Marsh family all their lives. On Thursday, the tally of bodies unearthed surpassed the total population of the rural, unincorporated town. It was impossible to reconcile the news reports with the family's reputation. Like most people who spoke to TIME, a bewildered Judy Davis said of the Marshes, "They are good people, churchgoing people."