Caption: Allen Brothers Mortuary’s currently provides offsite cremation services in Lake Elsinore but is seeking a permit to install a crematory in San Marcos. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
SAN MARCOS — An online petition is fanning flames of opposition over a proposed crematorium at Allen Brothers Mortuary in San Marcos.
A few concerned residents raised concerns of increased air pollution and potential health risks after Allen Brothers applied for a conditional-use permit with the city for the “installation and operation of a crematory” within an existing three-car garage located behind the chapel on Twin Oaks Valley Road.
Linda Allen, president and funeral director at Allen Brothers, said access to a local crematorium could save grieving families time and hundreds of dollars in funeral costs currently associated with transporting remains to Lakepointe Cremation & Burial in Lake Elsinore.
Allen said the flue’s exterior will resemble a typical brick chimney, unlike the looming smokestack at Angel Paws Pet Cremation on Pacific Street near state Route 78.
In 2009, Allen took control of the full-service mortuary which was founded in 1964 by her father Bob Allen and his brother, Frank Allen.
A fully licensed mortician and embalmer, Linda Allen said she wants to keep the family business going while providing better experience for customers.
“We are doing this as a service to our community,” Allen told The Coast News. “We look forward to the public meetings so we can clear misconceptions, myths or other unknown issues.”
The petition, initiated by San Marcos resident Ralph Desiena, states that if the project goes forth, “serious health risks could affect YOU,” including an increased risk of respiratory issues, cancer, “odor impacts and black smoke.”
Desiena, 66, said his primary concern is increased levels of mercury and dioxins, a group of toxic chemical compounds produced from trash burning and fuels such as coal, wood and oil.
“My concern is adding more emissions,” Desiena said. “Do we really need to expose people to that? I don’t feel like anything like this should be in a zone that borders residential areas.”
Desiena pointed to last year’s fire at Cortez Cremations and Funeral Services in National City after an oven door failed to close while in use, sending smoke and human ashes billowing into the air.
“If something goes wrong, it’s going to be spewing out a lot of stuff,” Desiena said.
Several residents that live in the Twin Oaks area wrote that a crematory would add to already high pollution levels generated from nearby state Route 78 and Highway 15.
“I also don’t want ashes of burning bodies to rain down on my home or breathe toxic fumes,” one resident wrote.
Another said, “Right by my residence and don’t want the smell of burning bodies to be a new normal.”
But when it comes to odor and emissions, Allen said there really isn’t much to worry about.
“People think there is going to be odor and there is no odor at all,” Allen said. “There is nothing emitted out of the chamber.”
Allen said the funeral home has already been cleared by two air quality control agencies and is awaiting a decision from the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District.
“A crematory puts out less pollution than a fast-food restaurant,” Allen said. “The unknown is always worse than the known. If you are having phobias about it, come to the meeting and you’ll get answers.”
Barbara McKennis, executive director at Cremation Association of North America (CANA), said that out-of-date information has contributed to the perpetuation of myths about crematoriums.
According to McKennis, the cremation process is fairly simple.
Before the process beings, a deceased individual is properly identified and authorized for cremation by a licensed mortician.
Jewelry and medical accessories are removed before the body is cleaned and placed inside of either a wooden casket or an alternative vessel made of rigid cardboard.
The container is placed inside a primary chamber, known as a retort, and incinerated at temperatures between 1,600 and 2,000 degrees.
The industrial furnace takes roughly two hours to consume the average human body and produces roughly 5 to 10 pounds of tiny bone fragments which are ground into “cremains.”
During the incineration process, air flow is directed from the cremation chamber to a secondary chamber which further destroys any remaining particulate matter and odors.
The body itself does not produce any smoke.
The air flow is cooled as it rises through the chimney stack, reducing any visible emissions to a translucent heat shimmer.
“I’ve visited hundreds of crematories and they smell like heated metal,” McKennis said. “We are talking about extremely high heat, not a fireplace or open pyre.”
McKennis said silver amalgam dental fillings can produce a small amount mercury into the air which has been a source of controversy.
In 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classified amalgams as a class II medical device and reaffirmed that encapsulated amalgams are a “safe and effective restorative option for patients.”
“There are certainly fillings in our teeth that contain mercury and therefore it stands to reason that a cremated body emits mercury in the air,” McKennis said. “But how much are we talking about? Very small amounts or we wouldn’t be able to have mercury in our mouths in the first place.”
And cremations are steadily growing in popularity across the country.
California experienced a 64.7% cremation rate in 2017, an 8.5% increase from 2012. By 2022, the projected cremation rate for California is 72%, according to a CANA study.
“It’s difficult for science to trump emotion in these situations,” McKennis said. “People are choosing cremation but don’t want it anywhere near where they live. (The fear) is based in emotion, but this is a necessary service in a highly regulated industry.”
For Desiena, he would prefer a more discreet location for a crematory.
“I have no problem with cremation, but it’s got to be properly sited,” Desiena said. “And that doesn’t mean in a valley bordering residential neighborhoods. I can see they would want to offer full service for their clients, but the city needs to know that it’s not making people happy.
Desiena’s online petition began on March 1 and has since gathered 847 signatures.
A public meeting has yet to be scheduled but is expected at the end of June, according to Allen.