It’s a choice Diane Fuller doesn’t relish.

Either her business will have to spend “thousands of dollars” on costly equipment or she and her employees will have to literally look into the mouth of death.

“The thought of it just creeps me out,” says Fuller.

With her husband Dan, Fuller runs Gracelawn Memorial Park in Auburn. Their crematory is one of five in Maine.

On Monday, a late-filed bill had Diane Fuller fuming. The bill is an offshoot of two other bills, now tabled, that came before the Legislature this year seeking to ban the use of mercury fillings by dentists. Mercury is a heavy metal linked to developmental problems in infants and other health-related issues.

The measure that would affect Gracelawn, L.D. 1664, was filed by Sen. Scott Cowger, D-Hallowell, Senate chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, which tabled the other two measures.

During discussion of those bills, lawmakers were told that dental mercury gets vaporized and escapes into the atmosphere to pollute Maine via cremations.

Cowger responded by seeking a way of getting the toxin under control, he said Monday afternoon, shortly after his bill was referred by the Legislature to the committee he oversees.

Cowger said at least “20 pounds of mercury” is released into the air annually by the state’s crematories “and probably more than double that.”

Given trends, the figure will only go up, he added.

“The number of cremations in Maine has doubled, to 50 percent” of all deaths in the state over the past decade or two, he said. With an aging population, “I see that trend continuing.”

Cowger said his bill calls for one of two measures:

“Require the removal of amalgam fillings before cremation or put emission-control equipment on the stacks,” he said.

The latter “would cost thousands of dollars,” said Fuller. And the former wouldn’t be much cheaper. Looking into the mouths of 2,000 or so bodies annually – Gracelawn’s count – would be time-consuming and costly.

“We’d need special training,” she said. “And a special place to do that. And special equipment – full biohazard suits. Nobody is going to do this. I can’t think of a crematory owner who will comply. We won’t,” said Fuller.

And, she added, Maine law prohibits operators such as herself from touching bodies. Cadavers arrive in boxes or other containers ready for the crucibles.

Funeral directors who have already been trained to deal with body fluids and other issues might be the more appropriate people to remove fillings, Fuller said. But, she added, they don’t want the task either.

“Can you imagine going to a family and telling them you have to take out their loved one’s teeth?” she asked.

There are instances, however, when loved ones actually ask for just that. Fuller confirmed what Sen. John Martin, D-Aroostook, had said earlier in discussing mercury dental fillings: that gold-filled teeth are removed before the deceased gets to the crematorium.

“There are funeral directors,” Fuller said, who have removed gold teeth “at a family’s request.”

“Otherwise,” she added, “that would be theft; it would be like taking jewelry off a person.”

As for mercury teeth, Fuller doesn’t see a need to do anything.

“Studies we’ve seen,” she said, show little if any mercury escaping into the environment during cremation.

“It’s not that big a deal,” said Fuller.

The United Kingdom this year began requiring crematoriums there to install exhaust system scrubbers to capture mercury emissions. The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that funeral directors estimated the technology would add slightly less than $200 to a cremation’s cost.

Cowger said he expects the legislation to come before the Natural Resources Committee for a hearing sometime next week.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.