Urning An Honest Living: Casket Retailers Challenge Government-Enforced Cartel

John Kramer
John Kramer · September 16, 1999

Washington, D.C. – Can a state impose regulations on an entrepreneur that have no other purpose than to protect existing businesses from competition? That is the question the Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm, will seek to answer when it files a federal lawsuit today in Chattanooga on behalf of four Tennessee entrepreneurs. The suit challenges the state’s prohibition on casket sales by retailers who are not licensed funeral directors. Such sales are a crime in Tennessee and in at least eleven other states.

Enacted in 1972 thanks to a state senator with strong ties to the funeral home industry, the law makes it a crime to sell caskets from a retail location without a funeral establishment or funeral director’s license. Those who violate the law risk fines and even imprisonment, even though the retailers are merely selling caskets, not conducting funerals. The caskets they sell are often identical to those sold in funeral homes but for a fraction of the cost. All casket retailers do is allow the deceased’s survivors to select an appropriate casket, which the store then delivers to the funeral home of the customer’s choice. The retailers neither handle the body nor perform burials.

“This lawsuit seeks to end the enforcement of arbitrary and unreasonable licensing laws that both prevent individuals from earning an honest living and harm Tennessee consumers,” said Chip Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute.

Plaintiffs Reverend Nathaniel Craigmiles and Tommy Wilson, co-owners of the Craigmiles/Wilson Casket Supply in Chattanooga, and Angela Brent and Jerry Harwood, co-owners of Knoxville’s The Casket Store, have been ordered by the state to stop selling caskets from their stores or risk criminal prosecution.

“This law serves absolutely no health or safety purpose,” said Miranda Perry, an Institute for Justice staff attorney. “The only people benefiting from this law are the licensed funeral directors seeking to maintain a government-protected monopoly.”

The government-enforced cartel enables funeral directors to overcharge customers who, in the midst of grief, don’t want to feel miserly toward the deceased. By far the largest portion of funeral costs goes to the casket purchase. This is where funeral homes make most of their profit. A casket often accounts for one-third to one-half the total cost of a funeral with burial. Nationally, the average price of a funeral with burial is about $8,000.

Independent casket retailers, however, offer prices that are a fraction of those found at funeral homes. The Casket Store sells a popular stainless steel model with a blue crepe interior known as “Going Home” for only $1,499, compared to the $3,495 charged by area funeral homes. Yet soon after these stores opened up, the state acted swiftly to protect the public from these low prices-all because the retailers refused to submit themselves to the absurdity of obtaining a funeral director’s license.

Obtaining a funeral director’s license requires two years of training in funeral directing and embalming and passage of a licensing exam-at a cost of at least $8,000.

“Requiring us to go through this training when we don’t handle the deceased or perform burials makes as much sense as requiring the hearse driver or the person who sells the tombstone to go through this training,” argues Reverend Craigmiles.

“I was threatened with jail time and forced to sell off my inventory of caskets because the state government, which should have protected my right to operate a business, instead protected the funeral industry from competition,” said Angela Brent, co-owner of Knoxville’s The Casket Store. “It’s just wrong.”

“Similar arbitrary licensing laws affect hundreds of other occupations across the country,” Mellor noted. “Our goal is to restore economic liberty-the right to earn an honest living free from excessive government regulation-as a fundamental civil right.”

Joining the Institute as pro bono local counsel is Hal North of the Chattanooga law firm Shumacker & Thompson. The lawsuit will be filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee.