updated 8/23/2004 6:19:42 PM ET 2004-08-23T22:19:42

Jury selection began Monday in a lawsuit against the operator of a crematory where hundreds of decaying bodies were found piled up or scattered across the grounds.

Nearly 1,700 relatives of the dead are suing the Tri-State Crematory’s operator, Brent Marsh, and the estate of his late father, Ray Marsh, for unspecified damages.

This trial will determine only liability. If the jury rules against the Marshes, a second trial will be held a few months later to decide how much they should pay in damages.

Marsh sat silently during jury selection, reading from the Bible. Attorneys for the Marsh family, which is black, said they were concerned that the jury pool had just one black member.

In 2002, investigators discovered 334 bodies at the crematory in Noble, near the Tennessee line. Corpses were found in storage buildings, in burial vaults, and in pits and in the surrounding woods.

Investigators found that the crematory gave some families concrete dust instead of their loved ones’ ashes.

Brent Marsh also faces 787 charges in a criminal trial set for Oct. 11.

Fifty-eight funeral homes that sent bodies to the crematory have already reached settlements totaling $36 million with the families of the dead.

In the criminal case, a judge ruled Brent Marsh was too poor to afford his own lawyer. If the families win this lawsuit, they will probably try to get the Marshes’ insurance company to pay.

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