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Fuel to the Fire: Sunnyvale resident Michael Gulasch, who lives next-door to the funeral home of Wyant & Smith, says he and his neighbors will be subjected to falling ashes, rising mercury levels and the horror of seeing the dead loaded into the facility's proposed crematorium.

Burning Issues

Vocal Sunnyvale residents say new crematorium will be responsible for the stink in their city

By Justin Berton

THIS WEEK, a new crematorium at the Wyant & Smith Funeral Home in Sunnyvale will host its first customer. The furnace, 24 tons heavy, about the size of a 7-foot-high SUV with a thin smoke stack coming out the roof, will fire at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit and, if the city's death rate holds steady, turn about 95 corpses into dust within a year.

Not everyone in Sunnyvale is pleased with the new facility. Michael Gulasch, who lives next door to Wyant & Smith and has become an expert in crematoriums recently, fears his home will get sprinkled on by a rain of human ash. He says the odor of charred embalming perfume will cling to the neighborhood. And, due to the layout of the funeral home, he says his two daughters, along with other neighbors, will be forced to watch the caskets get fed into the oven. "Unless they load the bodies

in the dead of night under a moonless sky," Gulasch says, "we're going to see it happen."

For the past few Saturdays, Gulasch and a handful of members from his Heritage District Neighborhood Association have spent their mornings picketing his next-door neighbor. During funerals, the protesters move to the end of the street, or downtown to the Farmer's Market on Murphy Avenue.

Some of the picketers, including Gulasch's daughters, wear face-masks to symbolize the toxic emissions they'll be forced to inhale. They carry signs that read "Don't Make Us Watch Burning Bodies," along with a photo of a refugee mother carrying her daughter in her arms, circa World War II, fleeing Hitler's army.

Despite a flair for NIMBYist hyperbole, Gulasch and his supporters aren't crying for naught. Cremations are steadily becoming the most popular way to go for Americans, especially in the Bay Area, and crematoriums, likewise, are popping up in cities like 7-Elevens. So quickly, in fact, that local environmentalists connect the rising mercury levels in the region to the influx of burning of dead men's cavity fillings.

If Gulasch and his supporters can't force the Sunnyvale City Council to reverse its decision--which it won't--they've got several other plans of action lined up to put the kibosh on the crematory.

And if efforts fail, it's an all-or-nothing battle for Gulasch. "If they're allowed to keep it running, then we'll have to move."

THE WYANT & SMITH Funeral Home has been wedged in between a row of homes on North Sunnyvale Avenue since 1952, long before strict zoning laws separated businesses and residents. The home's green front yard has always been trimmed immaculately, much like the other homes on the street, and save for modest signage out front, some drivers might easily pass the small mortuary and never know better.

Dick Smith has run his one-man mortuary since 1969. He's the only person who tends to the bodies, and his employees are part-time help. He owns a few homes along the street, rents them out, and is a part owner in the city's popular downtown restaurant, Stoddard's. He's a fixture with the Chamber of Commerce. "We've been part of this community for a long time," he says.

Michael Gulasch and his family arrived in 1990 and he says he had no qualms when he bought a house next to a funeral home. "Living next-door to a mortuary has always been fine with us."

Yet shortly after the family settled in, Gulasch says he was awakened at 8am on Saturday mornings, like clockwork, to the chorus of electric hedge clippers and leaf blowers. His wife complained, and Smith agreed to move gardening duties to late morning.

For the occasional big funeral, when the parking lot behind the mortuary filled up, guests parked in front of Gulasch's home. Sometimes bereaved guests' cars filled up both sides of the street, and backing out of his driveway became a blind leap of faith for Gulasch; to date, he's knocked down two bicyclists.

Thoughtless mourners sometimes use Gulasch's front yard as an ashtray, he says. And to keep the cars off the curb, the city finally painted a red stripe in front of his home. "So now, I can't even park in front of my own house." When funeral guests routinely ignored the red stripe, Gulasch waited months before he called the city's parking police. "That," he says with a pause, "was a tough call to make."

But in the nearly 11 years that Gulasch has put up with leaf blowers, cars and cigarette butts, he's never made a phone call to Dick Smith. He's heard stories that Smith is the "abrasive type," someone who yells and hollers if he's challenged; someone who can't be reasoned with.

"So I don't want to engage with that type of person," Gulasch says.

LAST YEAR, unbeknownst to Gulasch and his neighborhood group, Dick Smith requested city permission to install a $180,000 Power-Pak II Ultra Cremator in the back of his mortuary.

In the past, after hosting funerals where the family requested cremation, Smith drove the corpse to the Irvington crematorium in Fremont, waited three or four days and then retrieved the remains for the family.

But contracting-out cremations proved sticky business for Smith. Gee-whiz media reports revealed a slew of crematorium crimes--burning a few corpses at a time, losing remains, ditching remains in storage bins. Smith's clients frequently ask, "How do I know these are Dad's remains?" And Smith has to respond, "I presume they are, because that's what was given to me."

Now, to meet the increasing cremation demand and to ensure the integrity of the remains--and to make things easier on his clients and himself--Smith began researching the idea to cremate on-site. "It used to be that only a few of our clients opted to be cremated--maybe 10 percent. Now it's more like 50 percent."

Indeed, according to the Cremation Association of Northern America, cremations are wildly popular. Twenty years ago, one in 10 corpses ended up in a furnace. Today, about four in 10 Californians get incinerated. By 2010, the industry predicts one in two.

The reasons vary greatly. A CANA poll found the primary reason families choose cremation is for its thrifty costs. Second, fewer people want their body left to waste in the ground. And third, a wide shift in America's religious demographics: In short, there are fewer by-the-book Catholics who forbid cremations, and there are more high religions that prefer it, like Hindus.

Not surprisingly, construction of crematoriums has followed this trend. According to an industry report to the U.S. Congress last year, there were just 585 crematoriums in the U.S. in 1980. In 1997, that number rose to 1,256--an increase of more than 100 percent in just 17 years. By the time the baby boomers are gone, industry experts estimate perhaps 2,000 crematoriums nationwide.

And all of them puff out bad stuff. Just how much bad stuff remains disputable.

The Bay Area is home to approximately three dozen crematoriums currently, many of which are within a few hundred feet of homes. The Oak Hill Cemetery, for instance, located on the corner of Curtner Avenue and Monterey Highway in central San Jose, is the city's largest, with a neighborhood just to the south side, and uses two crematoriums to burn 1,300 bodies a year--a little more than three bodies a day.

What's billowing from these stacks is indisputable. A 1999 EPA report (partially funded by CANA) proved that "negligible" amounts of carbon monoxide spewed from the typical crematorium--less than the average burger restaurant--but when bodies burn, they emit a slew of skunky toxins: chrome mostly, lead, nickel and, most significantly, mercury.

Last year, Clean Water Action, a San Francisco-based environmental group, conducted a study that claims the "third highest" contributor to airborne mercury in the region comes from crematories. Or, more specifically, the mercury comes from dental amalgam inside the corpse's fillings. The group called for morticians to pull teeth before burning.

Dick Smith says he's heard the qualms over mercury emissions, but says, "The amounts are so minimal, it's not even worth talking about" and adds that he won't be pulling teeth--"Oh god, no! Once in a blue moon people will ask to have the gold retrieved and I ask them to have a local dentist come down and do that."

Yet the effects of living in close proximity to a crematorium aren't really known.

According to Gulasch's take on research provided by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, at least one Sunnyvale resident will die from emissions produced by Smith's furnace. He grounds this prediction on a BAAQMD report that shows Smith's incinerator will cause an increased cancer rate over 70 years of 10 in a million, or one in 100,000 persons.

But a BAAQMD representative says Gulasch is twisting the numbers to suit his fear. Greg Stone, a supervising air quality engineer who is familiar with Smith's expected emission reports, says what the projection means is that if one person stood at the precise spot of "maximum ground level impact" for 70 continuous years--without moving--that person's chance of contracting cancer from the crematorium would be increased by a factor of 10 in a million.

"Of course," Stone says, "no one would stand in one spot for 70 years."

Gulasch challenges Stone's math, quipping, "He's almost right. It's a judgment call as to what's acceptable and what's not acceptable. It's quantitative, not qualitative. We feel any impact to the neighborhood is not acceptable."

Smith's operation is tiny compared to most local crematoriums and will burn a few times a week. Even though Smith's permit allows for 550 bodies a year, he can only handle about 95. And despite Gulasch's grim claims that Smith will incinerate pets, Smith says he'll only work on humans. "I do it all around here. And if I go on vacation, things have to wait."

The BAAQMD's engineer Stone says Smith's crematory is up to snuff. "It was comparable to other cremators we've given permits to. It was evaluated the same way as all the others. Is it risky? No. We don't permit things we think are risky."

Adds Smith, "We're putting it right next to our offices. I'm here 18 hours a day. I have rentals along this street. If it were something that was hazardous or dangerous, I wouldn't do it."

Photograph by Jeff Kearns

Dead Serious: Neighbors staged a protest in front of their local mortuary. According to statistics, cremation is on the rise with 40 percent of the dead in California being incinerated.

IN DECEMBER, when Smith's addition finally came before the council for a vote, Gulasch had time to organize and presented a 52-slide Powerpoint presentation.

Backed by residents in the neighborhood who were also fired up about the issue, Gulasch showed his picture of refugees fleeing, along with skull and crossbones: "I Don't Want to Breath Toxics [sic]." Another graphic read, "Welcome to Sunnyvale: Population 131,000"--with the three zeros X'd out--"Crematory Death Risk one per 100,000."

Gulasch argued that other cities, like San Diego, put new laws on the books to require a 650-foot buffer from homes to crematories. He noted that nearly 150 residences are located near Smith's incinerator.

He also found that, contrary to a city report, the noise of the furnace would exceed the city's noise abatement ordinance. He likened it to a leaf blower.

And, Gulasch concluded, the exposed building all but allowed common passersby and residents in the apartments next door to easily view the incinerations. (Smith says it's the same door they've always loaded caskets through. Now, in fact, he's extending a wrap-around fence. "It will be impossible to see anything.")

Gulasch also presented testimonials from neighbors who live close to a crematorium--in Enfield, Conn.--who said their windows were blanketed in ash and their streets reek of a "distinct odor."

The council listened to Gulasch intently, but ultimately sided with Ron Salvatore, a sales representative for the crematorium. Salvatore promised that the cremator doesn't cause visible ash, odor or obtrusive noise. He says crematoriums are often in use while funerals are in service. "If it can't disrupt the service, how can it bother the neighbors?" he said afterward. "If you walk outside right now, you'll see dust on your car. When these people see dust on their car, they're going to blame it on the crematorium, believe me."

While some councilmembers grew concerned by Gulasch's reporting, the BAAQMD's permit approval weighed heavy in their decision and they favored the crematorium 6 to 1, with the only dissension coming from Mayor Jack Walker--and Walker says he was peeved about the zoning issue.

"We can quibble all we want over the smell it might cause, or if there's ash fallout or whatever, but the fact remains: the Planning Commission approved it, the BAAQMD signed off on it--and we need it. I didn't like the extension to the business in [what's now] a residential zone, so it was a planning issue for me."

After the vote, Gulasch says his daughter Ariel, 13, started crying so hard in the auditorium she couldn't breathe. "She thought she was going to be exposed to toxics or have to move."

IN FEBRUARY, Gulasch quit his job as a consultant in the architecture business to work on the crematorium issue full time. He's a Berkeley grad and he's got an activist's heart.

After the defeat at City Hall, he helped put together a lawsuit against the city, claiming the Planning Commission failed to give nearby residents fair warning on the crematorium, and that the extension to the funeral home violates zoning laws. He's hoping to get a ruling within a month.

Second, after hinting that cronyism between city councilmembers and Smith landed the permits, his neighborhood group endorsed a trio of newbie candidates to run against the popular, crematorium-friendly incumbents in November. And he's leading six other neighborhood groups in an attempt to consolidate their power, tentatively calling themselves the Sunnyvale United Neighborhood Associations.

At the same time, Gulasch also speaks of easing of the spotlight on the issue so it doesn't appear that "it's just a neighbor vs. neighbor thing."

And last week, Gulasch called his neighbor for the first time and asked to talk. Gulasch said he wanted to invite Smith to a neighborhood meeting. Smith, however, believes Gulasch was only motivated by outsiders who wondered why if Gulasch was so committed to being a neighborhood guy he hadn't spoken to his neighbor in more than a decade.

According to Gulasch, Smith wasn't aggressive, like he had heard, and was in fact gracious. But, "If he's like me, passive-aggressive, he wears a poker face and is thinking something else." Meanwhile, Smith's crematorium will begin operating this week. He says the picketing hasn't bothered him or his business.

"Business is business as usual," Smith says. "We're a funeral home, and cremation is just an accessory to the business. We're here to do a service--to deal with the dead."

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From the August 30-September 5, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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