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2020—Virginia wants to keep competition out of funeral directing

One of the parts of consumer advocacy that many don’t know about is monitoring laws and regulations that affect consumers. Sometimes the connection between consumer advocacy and regulations isn’t immediately obvious.

Funeral director licensing laws are an example. A set of proposed regulations in Virginia illustrate the situation. Below is the text of a letter we sent to the Virginia Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors. The issue in question is what type of training and schooling funeral directors should be required to take in order to be given a license to do business with the public.

In 2020, the state legislature passed a law (Senate Bill 1044) that was meant to make it easier to get a funeral director license. The goal was to eliminate the current requirement for funeral directors to also be trained as embalmers. Why would anyone want to eliminate that requirement? Here’s why, and here’s how that requirement affects consumers:

1. Embalmers have to graduate from mortuary school, taking a curriculum that’s heavy on embalming training.

2. But embalming is not required by law in Virginia when a funeral home has refrigeration available. In other words, a funeral home in the state doesn’t even need to offer embalming if it chooses to offer simple services that don’t create a practical or cosmetic reason for embalming. Current Virginia regulations require licensed funeral directors to be embalmers, even though no funeral home is legally obliged to even offer embalming.

3. Mortuary school costs money, and two years’ worth of study time.

4. Mortuary schools function in some ways like indoctrination centers, training students to believe false claims such as the idea that embalming protects public health, or that families cannot view bodies unless they’re embalmed. This idea forms one of the foundations of making funerals expensive and more profitable.

5. Requiring all Virginia funeral directors to be embalmers means that every would-be funeral director has to spend the time and money on mortuary school even if embalming is not relevant to the kind of business they want to offer consumers. Even if the business person wants to open a simple, direct-cremation-focused firm that does not offer embalming.

6. This has the effect of artificially raising salaries (it costs more to pay someone who has to recoup money spent on college), the costs of which are passed along to you, the consumer. It also narrows the field and filters out would-be funeral directors who are not inculcated in the false but profitable belief that embalming is necessary for public health or for the ceremonial viewing of the dead.

It all boils down to insulating old-school funeral homes and funeral directors from competition that could expand consumer choices and lower the retail price of funerals. It’s just old-fashioned protection of industry profits offered under the disingenous claim that it’s “protecting consumers.”

Our letter is below. The proposed regulations and discussion around them can be found in the September 1, 2020, Minutes of the meeting of the Virginia Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.


September 21, 2020

Virginia Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers
Perimeter Center
9960 Maryland Drive
Henrico, VA 23294

re: Proposed licensing requirements for funeral directors pursuant to SB 1044

Sent by Electronic Mail

The proposed regulations to create a separate licensure category for non-embalmer funeral directors are contrary to the legislative intent behind SB1044. That bill’s purpose was to compel the Board to license non-embalming funeral directors to do business in Virginia. Embalming is increasingly irrelevant as more families turn to simpler arrangements that do not create a practical requirement for this service. It is not practiced by traditional Jewish and Islamic burial providers. It is not even legally required by the Commonwealth when refrigeration is available.

The members of the Board are aware that Senator Jeremy McPike’s legislative intent was to allow competent, non-embalming funeral directors to enter funeral service. Instead of working to fulfill that intent, the Board proposes to erect irrational barriers to achieving a funeral directing license.

• The Board’s proposed regulations require a funeral director to either a) earn an associate’s degree in mortuary science (which includes extensive embalming training), earn a degree in ‘funeral service’ (a non-standard and unclear curriculum label), or earn 60 credit hours of coursework including pathology and anatomy.

In plain terms, the proposed regulations mean: “A funeral director is going to have to go to embalming school, or he or she will have to spend the equivalent amount of time taking courses in anatomy and pathology in order to do business in Virginia.”

This is transparently an attempt to keep the current licensure bottleneck in place. That bottleneck winnows out non-embalmers and privileges traditional (and increasingly outmoded) embalming-focused funeral directors.

Senator McPike recognizes the problem. His letter to Director of the Virginia Department of Health Professions states:

‘The creation of an overly burdensome, non-relevant curriculum . . . that can possibly take years to be approved or implemented is exactly the outcome I wanted to avoid.’

There is no health, safety, or consumer protection purpose served by requiring all funeral directors to either train in embalming or to spend the equivalent amount of time in coursework best described as “everything but”. CEOs of airline companies do not need to be pilots. Hospital directors do not need to be cardiac surgeons. Yet we are asked to believe that it is too dangerous to grieving consumers to allow a non-embalming-trained funeral director to plan and carry out a funeral.

It was my hope that this regulatory effort would refrain from using the rulemaking process to protect funeral service from innovation and competition. This hope was misplaced. The proposed regulations offer not consumer protection, but industry protectionism.

Stakeholders who take seriously the interests of the public should challenge these draft rules. Commonwealth statutes created the Board to protect the grieving public from unscrupulous practices. The rulemaking process must not abuse the public’s trust by using state-granted authority to insulate funeral service from change that would benefit consumers and promote a competitive marketplace.

Sincerely,

Joshua L. Slocum
Executive Director

 

cc: Office of Governor Ralph Northam
David Brown, D.C., Director of the Virginia Dept. of Health Professions
Senator Jeremy McPike
Jeff Rowes, Institute for Justice
Funeral Consumers Alliance of the Virginia Blue Ridge