Arlington, Va.— Can the government restrict economic liberty just to enrich politically favored insiders? That is the question the Institute for Justice (IJ) and Shelia Champion, a grandmother who owns an environmentally friendly cemetery in Hazel Green, seek to answer with a federal lawsuit challenging an Alabama law that permits only licensed funeral directors to sell caskets. Shelia wants to sell biodegradable caskets and shrouds. But to do so, she must be licensed as a funeral director and turn her cemetery, which is a natural forest in an untended state, into a funeral home.
Previously, IJ successfully represented the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey in their challenge to Louisiana’s casket-sales law.
Shelia opened The Good Earth Burial Ground just north of Huntsville, Alabama, to provide inexpensive and environmentally friendly interments. Her innovative business aims to help people reduce the enormous expense of funerals, which now cost over $8,000 on average, while returning remains to the earth in the quickest and most environmentally responsible way possible. Her caskets and shrouds may cost as little as a tenth of what people ordinarily spend on a casket.
This is exactly the sort of innovation that Alabama funeral directors do not like. Alabama is one of the few states that allow only licensed funeral directors to sell “funeral merchandise,” which includes caskets and shrouds. In order for Shelia to sell these things legally, she would have to attend mortuary college, serve as an apprentice for two years and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to turn her small business into a full-fledged funeral home. This investment of time and money is an impossibility for an older entrepreneur looking to start a modest business to supplement her retirement savings. And even if it were not impossible, this education and apprenticeship would be irrelevant to selling simple caskets and shrouds.
Alabama law has turned this unassuming grandmother into a criminal simply because it wants to protect the pocketbooks of already-licensed funeral directors by driving up prices for consumers. If she were to sell her caskets and shrouds, Shelia would face jail time and crippling fines.
“A casket is just a box and the law does not even require one for burial,” said IJ Attorney Renée Flaherty, who is representing Shelia. “There is no legitimate health or safety reason to license casket sellers.”
“Four out of five federal courts that have ruled on this issue have struck down restrictions on casket sales as unconstitutional,” explained IJ Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes. “More broadly, there is disagreement among the federal courts over whether the government can restrict economic liberty just to protect favored industries from competition, and Shelia’s case may be the one that goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve that conflict.”
“It makes no sense to limit casket, shroud and urn sales to Alabama licensed funeral directors when I could sew up a dress for someone and charge for it, but calling it a shroud would make it illegal,” said Shelia. “I simply want to provide less expensive, more intimate, more environmentally friendly alternatives to expensive, formal funerals—that is what my cemetery and biodegradable caskets are all about.”