Govans neighborhood fights crematorium from community fixture Vaughn Greene Funeral Services

“No Human Crematorium” reads the yellow lawn sign in front of Cindy Camp’s Northeast Baltimore home in Govans, a predominantly Black neighborhood.

Camp opposes a plan by Vaughn Greene Funeral Services to establish a crematorium on York Road. She said she’s worried the crematorium will pose health risks to her family — including her grandson, who has severe asthma, her mother and her brother.

“I have allergies, bronchitis — all of us have something that a crematorium being in the neighborhood definitely wouldn’t help. Sometimes because you’re poor or you live in a troubled environment, they don’t hear you,” Camp said. “Your voice is not as loud as somebody who would be a bit more influential. They look at us as, ‘There’s crime. Who cares?’ But there are people in our community who care.”

Camp is not alone. Jacki Whitfield-Williams, who owns a house in Govans and whose parents live in the neighborhood, said she’s concerned about the health impact as well. People don’t know what health issues something like a crematorium could cause until years later, she said.

Cremating the human body — which releases pollutants, such as particulates — involves a large amount of fuel, according to California-based nonprofit Green Burial Council, and “results in millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.”

“People need to [be made] aware of what’s going on,” Whitfield-Williams said.

The crematorium would be located within the existing funeral home building at 4905 York Road, a couple of blocks north of East Cold Spring Lane and across from the post office in Govans. If approved, the crematorium is within the allowed uses by the property’s zoning, according to the funeral home.

In addition to the York Road site, Vaughn Greene — which has been operating for more than two decades — has locations on Liberty Road, Baltimore National Pike and Emerson Avenue, according to the company’s website. The wake for Freddie Gray, who died from injuries suffered while in police custody, was held at a Vaughn Green funeral home in 2015.

Vaughn Green submitted its application June 8 last year for the crematorium to the Maryland Department of the Environment, which is reviewing it to determine whether such a facility will be allowed under state environmental laws and regulations. There’s no timeline on when MDE will make a decision.

Even if MDE signs off on the application, city approval still will be needed, said Kevin Nash, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Housing & Community Development.

Baltimore City has three crematoriums ― Bayview Crematory on O’Donnell Street, Loudon Park Memorial Association Inc. on Frederick Avenue and On-Site Cremation Center LLC, a subsidiary of Joseph H. Brown Jr. Home on North Fulton Avenue, according to MDE.

City Councilman Mark Conway, who represents District 4, which includes Govans, said he shares the same concerns as the neighborhood’s residents.

“Vaughn Greene is an important part of the York Road corridor, but I share the concerns of neighbors about the environmental and public health impacts of adding a crematorium in the middle of a dense residential area,” he said. “Baltimore suffers from above average rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses in adults and children, and we should be doing all we can to cut down on the toxic pollution in Baltimore’s air.”

Nearly 24,000, or 20%, of city children have an asthma diagnosis, according to a report by the Abell Foundation released last year. That’s more than double the national rate of 9%.

William Miller, co-founder of Vaughn Greene, said he understands the concerns of Govans residents.

“Our goal is to provide the community with continuity of care that is currently not available. … Rest assured that we have conducted and will continue to conduct the proper due diligence with the necessary professionals and the state of Maryland to comply with all regulations and to provide confidence and peace of mind for our shared community,” Miller said.

The number of crematoriums in Maryland has been increasing steadily every year, said Jay Apperson, a spokesperson for MDE, which regulates crematoriums’ emissions through the department’s air permitting and compliance programs.

Maryland has 55 active facilities for human or animal cremation or both, and issued six air permits for new crematoriums in 2020, and two so far this year, he said. Vaughn Greene’s application is for human cremation only.

“In order for a crematory to be installed and operated in Maryland, the permit applicant must demonstrate that the concentration of each toxic air pollutant’s emission is less than the level determined by state regulation to be protective of public health,” Apperson said. “This requirement must be met at the facility’s [property] line — whatever the distance of the crematory to that line.”

In November, MDE held two public meetings — one virtual and another in-person — about Vaughn Greene’s project and the state’s permit review process. MDE plans additional meetings to present the findings of its technical review of whether the project’s emissions meet regulatory requirements, but Apperson said he couldn’t provide dates yet because the agency is allowing additional time for public input.

Karen DeCamp, who has lived in Govans for 23 years, called the crematorium an issue of environmental justice.

“Why is the middle of a densely populated neighborhood in Baltimore City a location for a human crematorium?” asked DeCamp, who was president of the York Road Partnership for seven years. The partnership represents more than 20 neighborhoods.

While some people raised concerns about property values, DeCamp, who is asthmatic, said she’s most concerned about the health impact.

She said the burden will be on the Black communities on the east side of York Road.

After learning about Vaughn Greene’s plans, she said she — along with Chris Forrest, the current president of the York Road Partnership, and other volunteers — began knocking on doors and passing out flyers.

There’s also a petition, asking MDE to either deny the permit, or if it grants the permit that it would be with conditions — such as having the crematorium at another location or putting it at least 1,000 feet from a residence. Neighbors are being encouraged to write letters to Maryland Secretary of Environment Ben Grumbles, she also said.

“This is not a campaign against Vaughn Greene. They’re a very respected funeral home business,” DeCamp said. “It’s really just about this is not the right location.”