A Pittsburgh-area rabbi is challenging Pennsylvania’s funeral regulators.
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman has sued the state in federal court over requirements that a licensed funeral director participate in every burial.
He says that shouldn’t apply to his traditional ceremonies, particularly because he doesn’t do any of the embalming or cosmetics procedures they train in. Jewish burial practice does not call for embalming a body.
The rabbi says the state law interferes with his religious practice and is, therefore, unconstitutional.
His complaint alleges that funeral directors took notes at one of the funerals he conducted. He says that spurred two investigations by the state, which sent letters threatening him with fines and prison time for acting as a funeral director.
“Funeral directors were telling people that this is illegal and [I’m] a scofflaw,” says Wasserman.
“After literally two and a half years of trying to get [the funeral director licensing board] to talk to us and their refusing, we were left with no recourse but to sue them in federal court,” he says.
The Department of State, which includes the licensing boards, would never prosecute the Orthodox rabbi over his religion, says department spokesman Ron Ruman.
“Our role is to implement the law, which says that when funeral services are provided that a licensed funeral director must be present,” Ruman said
Other groups in Pennsylvania regularly perform funerals without funeral directors present, including some Quakers and Amish.
“As a conservative Quaker, I stand arm in arm with Rabbi Wasserman in the right for him to practice his religion,” says David Morrison of Lancaster County, who performs burials and has acted as an adviser to the rabbi.
Morrison says he thinks the funeral industry is concerned about losing business, though his area is familiar with traditional burials and his relations with local funeral directors are good.
In another case last year in Dauphin County, a policeman showed up at a woman’s wake.
“He was very polite,” says Lucy Basler, the daughter of the deceased. “He said, ‘I understand you have a dead body here.’ And we invited him anyway to see mother.”
A few months later Basler’s sister received a letter from the Department of State saying officials had received an anonymous complaint she had performed the duties of a funeral director. It said she would face a $10,000 fine if she conducted another funeral