LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan, in for Guy Raz.
More than 100 years ago, a small group of monks established a monastery in eastern Louisiana called St. Joseph Abbey.
DEACON MARK COUDRAIN: The monks been here so long, they have 1,100 acres and its own town called St. Benedict, Louisiana.
SULLIVAN: Deacon Mark Coudrain works there, and he says for all those years when one of the brothers died, the monks would painstakingly craft a flawless, pine casket in their woodwork shop.
COUDRAIN: Following the tradition of the monks with a flat top. It's got black metal handles on it, and it's a rectangular box.
SULLIVAN: They were so beautiful that over the years, clergy members and high-ranking church officials began to request them. And soon, members of the public wanted to see if they might be able to purchase one.
COUDRAIN: I brought it up to the abbot one day, you know, have you thought about making caskets? Other monasteries do it. Would you consider it?
SULLIVAN: They did. And in 2007, the monks opened a 5,000-square-foot woodshop in the abbey, which Coudrain now runs. All the money from the caskets would go to support the abbey and charitable causes. Everyone seemed happy, but before they could sell a single casket...
COUDRAIN: The abbot called me and said, you better sit down, I got a letter, and it says we need to stop making them because it's illegal in Louisiana.
SULLIVAN: That's right: illegal.
COUDRAIN: We can certainly make them, and we can sell them to anybody in the world except other residents of Louisiana. Because in Louisiana, you have to have a funeral home license to sell caskets to residents of Louisiana.
SULLIVAN: It turns out that's just one of dozens of antiquated and possibly monopolistic laws that pervade the nation's funeral industry, laws that for the first time in decades are facing new scrutiny as consumers become more aware of their rights and even funeral homes themselves want to change. That's our cover story today: the modernization of one of the country's oldest industries and what it means for a barrage of laws that differ from state to state.
For the monks and Mark Coudrain, Louisiana's law was a crossroad. Coudrain says the monks didn't want to upset local funeral homes, but they believed in the service they wanted to provide.
COUDRAIN: I've always been, since this began, God's got a plan and we'll see what he comes up with. And what he came up with was, all right, let's fight it. And then the monks agreed, you know, which is not typical of a monastery. You know, monasteries are, you know, they're not - they don't want to really be in the public eye, but they did. They decided to go ahead and let's see what we can do to make it legal.
SULLIVAN: And they won. A federal judge struck down the Louisiana law. But the funeral home industry in Louisiana has appealed, and the 5th Circuit Court will rule on that in coming months. In the meantime, the monks are selling their caskets.
COUDRAIN: We feel like it was our right to do this. We're not harming anyone. There was no health and safety issue. We're building a box. I mean, yes, it's holding the temple of the Lord, but it's a box.
SULLIVAN: It's hard to know just how many other states only allow funeral homes to sell caskets to state residents because there's very little federal law or oversight that regulates the industry. It varies state by state, and sometimes it varies depending on how politically powerful each state's funeral homes are.
CRAIG TREGILLUS: Many state regulations are regulations lobbied for by the funeral homes and some of them can be anti-competitive.
SULLIVAN: Craig Tregillus is the funeral rule coordinator at the Federal Trade Commission. That means he's the guy who makes sure federal funeral regulations are followed. Of course, there's only one from 1984.
TREGILLUS: The FTC's funeral rule took effect in 1984 in order to give everyone who arranges a funeral the right to purchase only the funeral goods and services they wanted or needed. An itemized list of all the funeral goods and services they offer and their price as kind of an ala carte menu.
SULLIVAN: Craig Tregillus and FTC inspectors have conducted 2,500 sting operations on funeral homes in the past 15 years just on this one rule: making sure customers get a list at the door and only pay for what they want.
Take caskets. There's no federal law or requirement that you buy one. But cemeteries who own the burial grounds can make their own rules about whether or not you have to use one. There are laws, however, in some states that you can't drink coffee at a funeral home.
It's the kind of thing that drives Paul Elvig crazy. He's the state liaison for the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association and a former regulator from Washington state.
PAUL ELVIG: If I was to sit down with you five minutes before you died, I could arrange your entire funeral with you, no problem. But the moment you stop breathing, Washington state law says only a licensed funeral director can do that. Well, is that right or wrong? I'm not going to go down the road of analyzing both sides. I've been a regulator and I see both sides. But that's the kind of legislation that can either promote a business or open it up in the marketplace.
SULLIVAN: You went out and looked at the states in the country and tried to get a sense of what their laws were like. What was your takeaway?
ELVIG: Well, we tried to collect all the laws that govern funeral homes and that govern cemeteries to look for some similarities so we could rewrite Washington state law, frankly. And there was no similarities. They're highly unique state to state. Now, if you go to insurance laws or laws governing real estate, they're very similar state to state, many times the same wording. But you're not going to find that similarity with funeral and cemetery laws. So that - I found that interesting at the outset.
SULLIVAN: What else did you find?
ELVIG: Well, I found that a lot of it represents old and very archaic language. I'll give you an example. Some of the states are referring to burial liners and burial vaults to keep varmints out of the grave. Well, what's a varmint? That's a word that hasn't been in our society and culture for years - that type of thing.
SULLIVAN: You're talking about laws that were written 120, 140 years ago. Why do they still exist?
ELVIG: Well, they still exist because it's difficult to get them changed. I'll give you an example. You go into a hearing, a Senate or a House hearing in your state, and you tell them you're here to talk about some changes needed in the cemetery or the funeral law and you're instantly greeted with, shall we call, the funeral humor.
Oh, this is a deep subject. Oh, this is a deadly subject. And unfortunately, as with most cases, it's not that fascinating to the average public, so it's a hard time getting their attention on it.
SULLIVAN: Do you think that right now that there's a shift going on in the funeral industry?
ELVIG: A big-time shift. Here in Washington state, when I came into this industry in the late '60s, 17 percent of the marketplace was cremation, now it's approaching 70 percent. Well, that's had a tremendous impact on the industry, but it's also had a tremendous impact for the regulator. And the laws haven't changed with the speed the marketplace has.
SULLIVAN: What's the big point of contention?
ELVIG: The general point of contention is how much should the consumer be able to control what they're going to do. Should you, to be able to buy cremation, have to deal with a funeral home? What about the cemetery in the state? Where's its role? It goes on and on and on. I see divisions in the industry on which way to go. And unfortunately, some of those divisions are based on economics.
Let's put it this way. If I was owning a funeral home, let's say, in Pennsylvania, because that's where my mind goes to, and I was in a small town, and I didn't want a competitor putting any, shall we say, a kitchen or a entertainment room or a reception room for food. I would want to see a law on the books that says you can't eat food in the funeral home and I'd try to justify it that it's dangerous to be eating food where they've been preparing dead bodies.
SULLIVAN: When you look at some of these laws that are on the books across the country, do they favor the consumer, or do they favor the funeral industry?
ELVIG: My feeling is it's about 50-50. It depends on how recently they've been reviewed. There's a lot of consumer protection in state statutes, good protection on case-by-case basis. But then in other states, you'll see laws that, frankly, don't help the consumer, not really giving an open market place, i.e. Wisconsin and its restriction on funeral homes owning cemeteries and vice versa.
SULLIVAN: That's Paul Elvig with the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association. He may want to see more uniformity in state regulations, but other industry groups aren't necessarily on the same page.
Patrick Lynch, a funeral home operator in Michigan and past president of the National Funeral Directors Association, says states should make their own rules.
But whatever the rules are, Lynch says, everyone should have to follow them, like the guy on the Internet selling the graveside services or a business that provides cremation or even big-box stores like Wal-Mart that sell caskets. He says this is not about profit. This is about protecting the consumer.
PATRICK LYNCH: Not allowing food in funeral homes or not allowing the free marketplace of product sales, those are very, very isolated incidents. The greater one, where, I believe, the federal government needs to take a position, is to say we need consumer protection across the board, not to protect the arena of funeral homes but to protect the consuming public.
SULLIVAN: For some people, though, all these rules and regulations aren't even relevant. There are some families in the United States that are turning to what are called home funerals.
In 1995, Elizabeth Knox's daughter was killed in a car accident. At the hospital, in despair, she couldn't accept the idea of sending her daughter's body off to a funeral home. A friend told her she should simply take her daughter home and relatives could come there to say good-bye.
ELIZABETH KNOX: And I cared for her myself, and she was 7 years old, and she had lots of friends, and she had two older brothers with lots of friends. And she had grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. And to have her at home for three days allowed all those people to come and gather in our house and to be with her one last time.
SULLIVAN: Knox dressed her daughter, stayed by her side and said good-bye. She said the process felt like closure and maybe a little bit like healing.
KNOX: That just would not have been possible, you know, in a funeral home. She would've been behind their locked door because, of course, they keep normal business hours. She would've been probably in a cooler with other bodies. When we would have seen her, they would've required that she be embalmed. If I wanted to see her, if I wanted a public viewing, and at best we would have had two hours with her in a public place that was not our home.
SULLIVAN: Knox now works in Maryland with other families to show them how to have their own home funeral. Many opt for cremation, but she says it's not hard to find cemeteries that don't require bodies to be embalmed. She says it changes the way people cope with death.
KNOX: I think a lot of people are less afraid of it. I'd say that's the most remarkable thing.
SULLIVAN: Elizabeth Knox says home funerals aren't really the future of the funeral business. They're the past - the way it was centuries ago before the funeral industry even existed.
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