Rotting Human Bodies Are Found at Georgia Crematory Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

More than three hundred rotting human bodies that should have been cremated were found unceremoniously dumped on the grounds of Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Georgia. Most of the corpses had to be identified using either forensic methods or the shipping records of the funeral homes that worked with Tri-State. Some of the bodies never were identified. At the time of the discovery, Georgia state funeral laws were lax on cremation requirements, licensing, and inspections, thus the dumping went unnoticed.

Summary of Event

In November, 2001, officials in Walker County, Georgia, were alerted by the U.S. Environmental Environmental Protection Agency Protection Agency that a neighbor had complained that something was not quite right at the Tri-State Crematory, which was located in a rural area of the county. The caller had reported seeing human body parts in the woods adjacent to the crematory. Sheriff’s deputies visited the property but did not find anything amiss. [kw]Georgia Crematory, Rotting Human Bodies Are Found at (Feb. 17, 2002) [kw]Crematory, Rotting Human Bodies Are Found at Georgia (Feb. 17, 2002) Tri-State Crematory[TriState Crematory] Crematories Marsh, Ray Marsh, Clara Marsh, Tommy Ray-Brent Tri-State Crematory[TriState Crematory] Crematories Marsh, Ray Marsh, Clara Marsh, Tommy Ray-Brent [g]United States;Feb. 17, 2002: Rotting Human Bodies Are Found at Georgia Crematory[03170] [c]Corruption;Feb. 17, 2002: Rotting Human Bodies Are Found at Georgia Crematory[03170] [c]Business;Feb. 17, 2002: Rotting Human Bodies Are Found at Georgia Crematory[03170] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Feb. 17, 2002: Rotting Human Bodies Are Found at Georgia Crematory[03170] [c]Environmental issues;Feb. 17, 2002: Rotting Human Bodies Are Found at Georgia Crematory[03170] [c]Government;Feb. 17, 2002: Rotting Human Bodies Are Found at Georgia Crematory[03170] [c]Public morals;Feb. 17, 2002: Rotting Human Bodies Are Found at Georgia Crematory[03170]

On February 17, 2002, following additional complaints, Walker County officials again visited the crematory and the homes of owners Ray and Clara Marsh and their son, Tommy Ray-Brent Marsh. Their homes were located on the grounds of the crematory. This time, officials made gruesome discoveries. Within a few days, hundreds of dead bodies were uncovered on the twenty-five-acre property. Some of them had been there only a few days, and others had been there for a number of years. Authorities could not tell why the corpses were dumped and not properly disposed of.

Crematory owners Ray and Clara Marsh were respected members of the Noble community. Ray, whose family was originally from the area, worked for the U.S. Postal Service. He dug ditches and graves with a backhoe in his spare time, a practice he continued for approximately ten years. In 1982, he spent about twenty thousand dollars for cremation equipment, which he housed in a shed on his property, and opened Tri-State Crematory. One of the first minority-owned crematories in the United States, it opened at a time when cremations were relatively rare in the South. Clara was originally from Mullins, South Carolina. She taught English for the local school district for approximately forty years. Also very active in the community, she was the first African American chairman of the local Democratic committee and also was involved in the local chamber of commerce. After Ray had a debilitating stroke in 1996 and was unable to continue operation of the business, the Marsh’s son Tommy kept the place running. As a high school football star, coach of the local youth group, and prospective deacon of his church, Tommy also was a respected member of the community.

A Georgia law enforcement officer at the entrance to Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Georgia.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As the cremation business grew in the South, Tri-State was accepting bodies not only from Georgia but also Tennessee and Alabama. Hearses were a customary sight at the Marsh property a couple of times each week. No questions were asked when Tommy began picking up the bodies himself at the funeral homes; there was no reason to believe that anything unusual was happening. The ashes of the deceased were customarily returned to the funeral homes on the next day. Tri-State charged a very reasonable fee of $200 to $250 for the service, while other crematoriums were charging $600 as a starting rate.

Neighbors began to notice that there was no black smoke coming from the crematory, but no one complained. The furnace in the shed had stopped working and needed a new part, leading to a change in the crematory’s operations. The Marshes purchased the needed part for less than $200. The vendor offered to install the part, but the family indicated that they did not require any assistance. This did not seem unusual to the vendor because the Marsh’s had never requested service from them in all the years they had been in business. Investigators later found that the furnace was operable.

Before the search of the crematory ended, officials discovered more than 330 bodies in various stages of decomposition, strewn all over the property. Bodies were stacked on top of each other. Some were dressed formally, some were dressed in hospital gowns, and some were still in body bags. Most of the corpses did not have identification tags. About fifteen bodies were stored in a burial vault that was intended for only one body. Bodies were stuffed into abandoned vehicles, and more had been thrown into the two-acre lake on the grounds. Neighbors did not complain of the odor of deteriorating bodies because odor from the property was not unusual. However, because human remains were deteriorating at different rates, the stench was likely deplorable.

Officials were forced to deal with a macabre situation. They declared the property a disaster area so that they could receive state funds for its cleanup. After cremation, human remains are returned to family members in temporary containers, if the family did not purchase an urn. The Marshes returned these containers in a timely manner to the funeral homes. However, the urns did not contain the remains of the deceased; they contained sand, ground-up cement, or burned wood-chips mixed with dirt. The families who later discovered that they had been duped by the Marshes felt extreme betrayal, sadness, and anger, and close to seventeen hundred relatives eventually sued.

The case of the rotting bodies was horrifying in itself, but it became even more so when people realized it never should have occurred. Georgia state funeral law at the time was extremely lax in dealing with crematories. Tri-State Crematory apparently had never been inspected, but inspection was limited in the state to begin with. Furthermore, a loophole in Georgia law allowed the business to run without a license for such work. The law did not address a crematory’s failure to cremate a human body, mainly because failing to do so was unthinkable. An official with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said “We have laws against desecrating graves, but we can’t find one against desecration of bodies,” adding, “I guess nobody in the Legislature ever thought something like this could happen.”

State forensic teams had to use a combination of methods to identify the bodies. These methods included matching dental records, DNA testing, and tracking records from the funeral homes where individual bodies originated. The remains that could be identified were cremated and returned to next of kin. About 130 bodies could not be identified and were buried in a mass grave in the fall of 2002. These bodies were not cremated; officials wanted to preserve the DNA of the corpses in case it was needed in future litigation or attempts at identification.

Impact

Georgia law could only treat this scandal as a misdemeanor. Tommy Ray-Brent Marsh was eventually convicted of 787 counts of theft, abuse of a corpse, and burial-service fraud. He was sentenced to two twelve-year terms for his crimes—one sentence for the state of Tennessee and one for the state of Georgia. Ray and Clara Marsh were not charged.

Relatives of the deceased filed a class action suit against Tri-State and the funeral homes involved. The award amounted to $36 million from the funeral homes and $18 million from the Marsh’s homeowner’s insurance policy. In addition, a portion of the Marshes land was set aside in its natural state as a tribute to those who were found there. The Marsh family retains the rights to all the land and the deed remains in their name. The crematorium was destroyed.

Georgia lawmakers rewrote the state’s funeral industry laws in the years after the Tri-State scandal broke. The new laws now contain felony provisions for those who abuse them, as well as provisions for the abandonment of a human body. Tri-State Crematory[TriState Crematory] Crematories Marsh, Ray Marsh, Clara Marsh, Tommy Ray-Brent

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Firestone, David, with Robert D. McFadden. “Scores of Bodies Strewn at Site of Crematory.” The New York Times, February 17, 2002. National newspaper report of the discovery of human remains at Tri-State Crematory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Iverson, Kenneth V. Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies. Tucson, Ariz.: Galen Press, 1994. A graphic discussion of the decomposition of the human body after death. Examines embalming, cremation, religious rites, and cultural biases relating to death, funerals, and human remains.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kitch, Carolyn, and Janice Hume. Journalism in a Culture of Grief. New York: Routledge, 2008. Explores “the cultural meanings of death in American journalism and the role of journalism in interpretations and enactments of public grief.” Includes a chapter on media coverage of the Tri-State Crematory scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prothero, Stephen. Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. History of cremation in the United States. Includes a historical time line.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosen, Fred. Cremation in America. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2004. A social and cultural history of the cremation industry in the United States. Includes a chapter on the Tri-State scandal. A good introduction, especially for younger readers.

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