A victory for religious freedom

Members of faith communities in Pennsylvania can now conduct their own (nonprofit) funerals

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In August, I went to federal court in Harrisburg and sued the commonwealth of Pennsylvania on behalf of religious freedom after local funeral directors asked the State Board of Funeral Directors to demand that licensed funeral directors oversee all funerals and burials.

The case was complex but came down to the licensed funeral directors making complaints as to how I as a rabbi had been taught to conduct funerals and engage in mourning and burial rituals for my congregation and my people.

The commonwealth responded by engaging in a meaningful dialogue. This paved the way for a settlement agreement, filed Monday, that protects the traditions of all faiths and religious persons in the commonwealth and clarifies that Pennsylvania law has always permitted religious, nonprofit last rites without the interference of for-profit funeral directors.

For us as religious Jews, as in all faith communities, death is not thought of as the end of life but rather an essential part of life. Religious persons mobilize and act together to grieve and appreciate the loss of a member of their community and especially to support the living by helping them through their time of need. In this context, death is more than just a sad and uncomfortable event; it becomes a moment to strengthen the important elements of life.

Shared responsibility and a giving spirit can overcome feelings of despair. Commitment to one another can be an uplifting and inspiring force. Putting the needs of others over the convenience of oneself can make the community and the world a better place for the living -- in the name of and to honor the deceased. This is generally true for all of the world's religions.

For centuries in Pennsylvania, religious persons, with and for grieving families in their communities, took joint and personal responsibility for the care of, transport and disposition of the deceased, according to their particular beliefs and practices.

As the 20th century unfolded, the way Americans viewed and responded to death changed. Some religious traditions became casualties of the great American melting pot and its market-driven economy. Religious customs unique to particular faiths were replaced by commercial assembly halls and for-profit funeral directors. Some members of faith communities lost touch with long-held beliefs and values, and they allowed their long-practiced rituals that celebrate life at the moment of death to be outsourced to third-party vendors.

It is against this backdrop that the multi-billion-dollar "death industry" developed. Over time, this efficient industry was able to displace the faith community in making "arrangements," often using high-pressure sales tactics on vulnerable mourners. Many leaders of faith communities, knowingly or unwittingly, have acquiesced and allowed death-industry representatives to direct this religious life-cycle event.

For years I have preached a return to our traditions and, in late 2009, I, along with the Pittsburgh Chevrah Kadisha (Jewish burial society), began to wash and transport the deceased and preside over burials without the interference of funeral directors.

Shortly thereafter, a number of licensed funeral directors tried to use the very laws intended to protect consumers from the death industry to stop me from doing what rabbis and clergy of other religions have done for deceased members of their communities since biblical times. They made a series of formal complaints to the State Board of Funeral Directors (after intruding on services uninvited and following funeral processions to cemeteries!) alleging that I was illegally engaging in "funeral directing," an offense punishable with up to one year of imprisonment.

A 28-month investigation by the commonwealth ensued, as I sought clarification as to whether my actions were legal, as I believed. The commonwealth informed me that the law prohibited its agents from providing me with such an advisory opinion.

In March of this year I received a letter from the commonwealth informing me of its decision to "defer prosecution," with the commonwealth reserving the right to reopen the case at any time for any reason.

So, with the support of my colleagues and other religious leaders, including David Morrison, a Quaker lay leader in Lancaster, and Imam AbduSemi'h Tadese of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, as well as very dedicated attorneys, I sought clarification from the federal courts.

As a result of the settlement announced Monday, members of faith communities have been guaranteed the opportunity to engage independently when their loved ones die, to remember them and care for their funerals and burials with dignity -- and in a context that is not driven by profit or commercialism. We have been guaranteed the opportunity to make the very difficult moment of death a time to appreciate life, to help one another and to make the world a better place for all its citizens. William Penn would be proud.


Rabbi Daniel Wasserman is spiritual leader of Shaare Torah Congregation in Squirrel Hill and leads burial practice efforts on behalf of Pittsburgh's Orthodox rabbis.


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