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THE DEBATE OVER A CREMATORY IN DOWNTOWN MIDDLETOWN: A neighbor's view, and the response from Travis Finkenbinder of Fager-Finkenbinder

Posted 1/27/16


The following was submitted as a Letter to the Editor from David E. Grabuloff Jr. It is also the text of Grabuloff's remarks to Middletown Borough Council on Jan. 19.

Following Grabuloff's letter is a response that was received from …

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THE DEBATE OVER A CREMATORY IN DOWNTOWN MIDDLETOWN: A neighbor's view, and the response from Travis Finkenbinder of Fager-Finkenbinder


The following was submitted as a Letter to the Editor from David E. Grabuloff Jr. It is also the text of Grabuloff's remarks to Middletown Borough Council on Jan. 19.

Following Grabuloff's letter is a response that was received from Travis Finkenbinder, LFD, president and owner of Finkenbinder Family Funeral Homes, in response to a request for comment from the Press And Journal


I and other Borough residents wish to express our concerns regarding the proposed crematory at the funeral home located at 208 N. Union St in an accessory building in a residential district in the center of Middletown. Construction could possibly start in the spring of 2016. Based on the information we have obtained to date about the proposed crematory and the Middletown Borough zoning approval, we have serious concerns regarding the impact this crematory will have on our property values, the environment in which our families live and play, and the general well-being of this great, historic neighborhood in a time of downtown revitalization.   We have the impression that many Middletown residents are still not aware of the potential damage which the proposed crematory could cause to their quality of life and property values. We are also disquieted by the hasty review which the Middletown Borough Authorities seem to have accorded an issue of such potential gravity. A crematory is an incinerator of human remains, and it appears the Middletown Borough has given the funeral home approval to use an accessory building on the funeral home property to incinerate bodies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

The funeral home submitted a Middletown Borough Building and Use Application for zoning approval to convert an existing garage into a crematory on June 23, 2015. Our then Zoning and Codes Enforcement Officer, Jeffrey Miller, approved this application through his response analysis dated June 24, 2015. Are zoning permit applications typically processed in 24 hours? A process that could include all manner of government processes such as paperwork being stamped, logged into a computer, matriculated to the Zoning Officer’s desk, reviewed, researched, and determined.

In the zoning officer’s response, under bullet point 5, he states, “Although not fully analyzed, there are no apparent non-conformities on the subject property.” Isn't it the job of a Zoning and Codes Enforcement Officer to FULLY ANALYZE all potential hazards and to scrutinize subject properties for NON-APPARENT non-conformities as well as apparent non-conformities, even if this requires more than a single day to respond to a building permit application?

The zoning officer also states that the 2013 Borough Zoning Ordinance "does not provide specific guidance on the subject.” Although he may not have found specific words in the ordinances, we feel there are several ordinances that would require reflection on this matter that would easily extend the approval process to convert an existing garage (an accessory building) into a crematory in a densely populated residential neighborhood past the 24 hours our zoning officer afforded it. This includes several of the points under Article 1 of the Borough Ordinances Section 260-102 Purpose of Enactment. This section touches upon such items as: the promotion and protection of "public health, safety, morals, general welfare, the provision of adequate light and air...the protection of natural and historic features and resources...[and]...the integrity of existing neighborhoods, and to maintain a high standard of air and water quality" along with the adequate regulation of "existing industry in the borough so that it may remain and its noise, odors and other unwanted features can be minimized."  We believe that the business of the funeral home will remain, but we’re not quite sure adding a crematory to the property will minimize its noise, odors, or other unwanted features. In the very least, these are things that should have been reflected upon.

The proposed crematory will be constructed in an accessory building in the residential zoned property of 208 N. Union St. Middletown Borough Ordinance defines accessory use as ”…a use customarily incidental and subordinate to the principal use or building and located on the same lot with such principal use or building.” What is the principal business of the funeral home –a funeral home that has been in business without a crematory for decades? Is it to provide funeral services for families on the premises of the funeral home at the 208 N. Union St. location? If the proposed crematory performs cremations not intended for funeral services rendered to the patrons of the principal business at 208 N. Union St., is the crematory still using the accessory building for business “customarily incidental and subordinate to the principal use” of the established funeral home on the property?

Also, Middletown Ordinance 260-1501 Accessory buildings, structures, and uses (L) – “Accessory uses include but are not limited to swimming pools, greenhouses and tennis courts.” The crematory is an incinerator of human remains. Do you think an incinerator of human remains, operated for profit, in a residential zone falls under the intended uses of an accessory building when examples provided by the Borough Ordinances are swimming pools, greenhouses, and tennis courts?

Middletown Borough Ordinance 260-110.C(1) – “The following uses are prohibited in all districts throughout the municipality: (1) The incineration, reduction or storage of garbage, offal, animals, fish or refuse, unless by the authority of or under the supervision of the municipality.” Since they will be operating an incinerator (please refer the attached title of the DEP application), is the municipality giving the funeral home authority to incinerate humans (i.e. animals) in our municipality in a residential zoned neighborhood? Is there paperwork relaying this authority to the funeral home?

If at all possible, we would be very interested to learn from Mr. Miller himself, or from one or more of his former supervisors and colleagues in the Borough Management why he/she/they believe that the 2013 Ordinance does not provide specific guidance on the subject and why the issues were not fully analyzed.

In the funeral home’s application to the PA Dept. of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Air Quality (Title: INCINERATOR: Application for Plan Approval to Construct, Modify or Reactivate an Air Contamination Source…), the funeral home requests in Section B (Titled: Incinerator Information) for review under a “Maximum Operating Schedule” of 24 Hours/day, 7 Days/Week, 8760 Hours/Year and a proposed “Operating Schedule” of 12 Hours/Day, 6 Days/Week, 3,744 Hours/Year which is operating over 10 hours each day, every day, for an entire year. PA Law does allow cremation as an “incidental,” “accessory,” and “subordinate” activity of a funeral home. Yet the proposed operating schedule of 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, 3,744 hours a year suggests that cremations, sooner or later, will become the principal activity at the funeral home rather than incidental, accessory, or subordinate, even if the funeral home management is not consciously contemplating such an outcome presently.

Was this potential operating schedule known to the Middletown Borough authorities when they approved the zoning request to establish a crematory on site on 24 June 2015? Will the funeral home cremate only bodies for services specific to the funeral home at 208 N. Union St. or will they also cremate bodies for services rendered at other funeral homes? If so, would these additional cremations still constitute an incidental, accessory, or subordinate activity of the funeral home at 208 N. Union St?

Allowing these proposed operating hours to go forward without further question in the planning and administrative review of this crematory/incinerator in a residential neighborhood effectively empowers the funeral home to create a primary business in the industrial cremation of bodies right in the heart of our downtown and to use an accessory building to do it. Additionally, this will set a precedent for other businesses to use an accessory building to initiate business that is neither incidental nor subordinate to their principal place of business. Who is going to ensure that the crematory use is customarily incidental and subordinate to the principal use of the funeral home? Who is going to ensure that they are not cremating bodies on a commercial scale?

The potential environmental impact of the crematory on our local community is reflected in the laws and ordinances of many other states. Georgia has a statute which prohibits crematories from operating less than 1,000 feet from residences, and a Georgia state senator has proposed expanding that to 2,000 feet. In terms of 208 N. Union St. there is a habitable dwelling 30 feet from the proposed site, there are 29 residential structures within 250 feet, and many others within 500 feet. Lyall J. Fink Elementary School is less than 1,300 feet away and dead east of the building - wind current typically travels east. Middletown Ordinances were established to require the Borough Management to ensure that no private activities constitute a nuisance or danger to human health and safety, livestock, or plants, or any other property as a result of the emission or dissemination of any fumes, smoke, odor or dust beyond the property lot of the premise upon which use or activity is located. Has the funeral home credibly demonstrated they will not violate this ordinance as they incinerate human remains, possibly on an industrial scale, within 30 feet of habitable dwelling and within 250 feet of many residences and 1,300 feet of an elementary school?

Does the Middletown Borough Management have any information regarding the impact the crematory could have on our air quality, our soil, and the health of our children? Additionally, if the DEP is responsible for conducting quality compliance reviews on the crematory, who from Middletown is responsible for ensuring they do so, especially when the DEP is woefully understaffed and inadequate in their air quality monitoring?

We are in favor of cremation. But frankly we have no desire to look out our windows as we prepare for dinner to see our children play in our yards and see a fully functioning crematory, running day and night, blowing smoke and brightly lit. We are sure you wouldn’t want it next door to your property nor the property of your mother or sister, aunt or uncle, without having any of these concerns addressed. We need to know that these questions were asked and answered. Now is the time to do the due diligence necessary to ensure the public’s safety and well-being, along with the safety and economic values of our properties.

We appeal to the Borough Council and management to take this matter to heart in establishing future agendas and business. We hope that the Council will use its authority and resources to investigate all matters associated with a crematory in a residential district. These include but are not limited to: the crematories effect on property values, public health, public morale, our air quality, in particular mercury emissions, the proposed monitoring from DEP, how this will affect our waste water management systems, and the integrity of our existing residential neighborhoods. Furthermore, we earnestly hope that the Borough hires a zoning officer who will ensure that these intrinsic values established in our ordinances are fully protected.

David E Grabuloff, Jr.



Response from Travis Finkenbinder:


Finkenbinder Family Funeral Homes, owned and operated by the Finkenbinder Family, is a full service funeral organization operating locations in Dauphin, Lancaster and Lebanon Counties. Funeral service has changed considerably over the last few years, most specifically, the rise in demand for cremation as a method of final disposition versus traditional body burial. Due to the increase in demand, coupled with some well-publicized and documented cremation related tragedies, families are demanding this service be provided on-site and by funeral home personnel. Uncompromising the chain of custody ensures their loved one never leaves the care of the Funeral Director they know and trust, and it allows them to participate in and witness the cremation ceremony in comfort and privacy. Our newly remolded state of the art facilities, pricing, licensed staff, and services offered, are second to none in the greater Middletown Area.

We are committed to conforming with all rules, laws and regulations as we install and implement this demanded service at our North Union Street funeral home. We have selected as our equipment supplier, Matthews Cremation, which is part of Matthews International, a 150+ year old company headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA. Matthews Cremation has dozens of cremation systems in Pennsylvania, several in Dauphin County, all of which have been approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP). The unit we propose to install exceeds the design and performance standards of PA DEP, which are the most stringent in the United States. A comprehensive application with supporting documentation has been submitted to PA DEP and is currently under technical review. We are actively working with PA DEP to provide additional information and clarification as recently requested.