Alabama residents looking to purchase environmentally friendly and cheaper caskets are now free to do so in the Yellowhammer State. Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, signed a bill this week lifting restrictions on who can sell funeral supplies and merchandise.
Under the new law, vendors can sell funeral items like caskets and shrouds without needing a funeral director’s license, and some say the action from both the state legislature and the governor pre-empted what would’ve been a victory challenging Alabama’s licensing laws in court.
“This is an example that if legislators don’t repeal laws like this, then they’re going to lose in court, and someone is going to bring it to everyone’s attention,” Renée Flaherty, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, told The Daily Signal.
“I think there aren’t many of these laws left, the casket restrictions. But the fact that they’ve been steadily falling is a wake-up call to the remaining casket sales restrictions and also to other occupational licensing restrictions schemes,” she continued.
Previously, only licensed funeral directors could sell funeral merchandise, which included items like urns, caskets, and burial shrouds.
But last month, Shelia Champion, a cemetery owner, and the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.,-based public interest law firm, filed a lawsuit against the state Board of Funeral Service arguing the laws placed unconstitutional restrictions on Champion’s economic liberty.
The Institute for Justice now plans to dismiss the lawsuit, Flaherty said.
“The Constitution protects the right to earn an honest living, and the government can’t interfere with that right by creating cartels that benefit only industry insiders,” Flaherty said. “Now, if someone wants to open up a retail casket store, they can do that. If someone wants to make caskets or shrouds and give them away, they can do that. There’s lots of possibilities for entrepreneurship and helping the community.”
Champion owns The Good Earth Burial Ground, an environmentally friendly cemetery, and wanted to sell natural shrouds, caskets, and graves to members of the community when a loved one passed away.
Not only was Champion’s goal to offer environmentally friendly interments, but she also wanted to ease the financial burdens traditional funerals bear on family members. According to court filings, the average funeral can cost more than $8,000. But Champion said her caskets and shrouds are one-tenth of the expense of those traditional items.
Despite Champion’s intentions, Alabama’s licensing laws made it illegal for her to sell funeral merchandise, as only licensed funeral directors were permitted to do so.
To attain a license, Alabama requires aspiring funeral directors to attend a mortuary college for at least one year and work as an apprentice for two years. Champion, though, didn’t want to work as a funeral director.
Champion wasn’t available for an interview, but in a previous interview with The Daily Signal, the entrepreneur criticized Alabama’s licensing laws for ignoring what she said is in the best interest of Alabamans.
“What the people all over the United States and Alabama need to do is pay more attention to the laws that are being passed, the ridiculous laws that protect the funeral directors, funeral homes, and have nothing to do with the good of the people,” she said.
Flaherty and the Institute for Justice were prepared to take Champion’s case to the Supreme Court, as there is currently a split among federal appeals courts over whether economic protectionism is a legitimate interest of the government.
“This case would’ve brought the issue of economic protectionism to the Supreme Court, whether economic protectionism is a legitimate interest of government,” Flaherty said. “That was our hope to get this issue a little bit further, but this law is a complete victory for our client.”