IJ Helps Ancient Mourning Custom Take on Modern Legal Challenge

In late June, IJ brought an innovative economic liberty case defending a calling that is both new and ancient. IJ client Akhila Murphy is an end-of-life doula in Grass Valley, California. She helps people plan home funerals and, if asked, provides comfort and practical support while the family performs the funeral. This is a new occupation in the sense that home funerals are just now experiencing a revival, but also an ancient occupation in that home funerals have been the norm for thousands of years, including into recent American history.

A home funeral is just like it sounds. People decide to die at home or are brought home shortly after passing. The deceased loved one lies in honor as family and friends pay their last respects, then a funeral director transports the remains for burial or cremation. Home funerals are legal in every state and have been part of the American experience since the nation’s beginning. George Washington, for example, had a home funeral at his Mount Vernon estate. Home funerals are reemerging as families look for more personal ways to celebrate the lives of those who have passed.

Akhila founded the nonprofit Full Circle of Living and Dying in 2013 to provide volunteer doulas to those seeking home funerals in northern California. Like most doulas, she came to this work for deeply personal reasons. A family member committed suicide, and then another, unable to bear the grief over the first, did so as well. Akhila concluded that the conventional approach to death—a funeral director whisking the loved one away—may hamper the experience of grieving and saying goodbye, at least for some people. She began training as an end-of-life doula and has grown her modest nonprofit with a dozen others.

This is where the story takes a predictable turn for followers of IJ’s cases. Akhila and her colleagues speak to the dying before death to help them plan home funerals, and they attend home funerals to assist with non-technical tasks like dressing a departed loved one or moving her to a place of repose. This, according to the California agency that regulates funerals, is against the law. In autumn 2019, Akhila learned that the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau was investigating her for acting as a funeral director without a license. The Bureau subsequently ordered her to stop serving people as an end-of-life doula and to stop advertising that she offers these services. But Akhila isn’t a funeral director; end-of-life doulas only perform the safe and simple activities that family members can legally do themselves.

We took up Akhila’s case to defend two core principles. One, the First Amendment protects the right of Akhila and her clients to have conversations about end-of-life planning. Occupational speech is fully protected speech. Two, Akhila’s clients have a due process right to hold funerals in private homes and a right to invite other laypeople, such as Akhila, to assist.

Jeff Rowes is an IJ senior attorney.

Sign up to receive IJ's biweekly digital magazine, Liberty & Law along with breaking updates about our fight to protect the rights of all Americans.