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Lawmaker with casket firms helped kill bio-cremation bill

March 21, 2015

A state lawmaker who owns two businesses that manufacture caskets helped kill legislation that would have legalized a new alternative to traditional burial in Indiana.

State Rep. Dick Hamm delivered a speech on the Indiana House floor against the bill and the so-called bio-cremation process, called alkaline hydrolysis, before the chamber defeated the measure Feb. 24 on a 34-59 vote.

Hamm acknowledges the new process "could reduce the need for cremation, caskets or whatever," The Indianapolis Star reported.

But the Richmond Republican insists his two businesses — Paul Casket Company and Cambridge City Casket Co. — played no role in his decision to oppose the bill, which would have allowed funeral homes to use alkaline hydrolysis as an alternative to cremation or burial.

"I'm not worried about it from the standpoint of how many caskets we're going to sell or not sell because of that particular means of disposing bodies," Hamm told the Star. "I'm thinking about from the standpoint of, it's just not very human."

His actions, in helping defeat a measure that would have legalized a new source of competition to his two casket-making businesses, raise concerns about conflicts of interest at the Statehouse as lawmakers consider a package of wide-ranging ethics reforms.

Those changes were spurred after several lawmakers faced scrutiny for blurring the line between personal and state business.

Rep. Greg Steuerwald, who chairs the House ethics committee, said he would have preferred Hamm to seek advice from the committee before the vote.

But the Plainfield Republican and House Speaker Brian Bosma said they didn't see a problem with Hamm's actions.

"I did not think it was inappropriate for him to advocate against what he felt was bad public policy," said Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

The alkaline hydrolysis process is allowed in 10 states and several others are considering it. The method uses a mixture of lye and other chemicals to dissolve a body, and — as with cremation — relatives receive an urn of powdered bone remains.

Rep. Jeff Thompson, a Lizton Republican who sponsored the bill, which had earlier passed the House Public Health Committee, had thought the measure had enough votes to pass the full House.

But then Hamm stepped up to the microphone, urged his colleagues to vote against the measure and disparaged alkaline hydrolysis.

"Now we're talking about we're going to put them in acid and just let them dissolve away and then we're going to let them run down the drain out into the sewers and whatever," Hamm said, adding that: "A country is as great as it is when it takes care of its dead."

The bill's supporters said Hamm's speech wasn't entirely accurate, in part because chemical cremation uses lye, not an acid.

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