Changes to a state law governing funeral homes in Pennsylvania could breathe new life into an industry that deals with death.
But many local funeral home directors are concerned that loosening regulations may unduly relax the oversight process.
"I don't think it's in the best interests of the people that we serve if we do away with the regulations," said Thaddeus T. Boron Jr., a licensed funeral director since the 1970s who -- with his parents and brother, also licensed directors -- operates Boron Funeral Home in Carrick.
The laws governing funeral homes grabbed attention this month when U.S. District Judge John Jones III struck down several provisions of the 60-year-old Funeral Director Law, describing them as outdated and unconstitutional.
Among the provisions he rejected were requirements that prohibit the serving of food in funeral service areas; limit ownership of funeral homes to licensed funeral directors and their spouses, children, grandchildren or estates; prohibit a licensed director from owning or working at more than two homes; and mandate that funeral homes be named after the proprietor in most cases.
The state board that oversees the funeral industry has three months to respond to the ruling.
Joseph Kuzman, supervisor for the A.J. Bekavac Funeral Home in Clairton, said he was concerned that the funeral business would suffer if too many restrictions were lifted.
"I don't think the care and attention will be there," he said.
The Allegheny County Funeral Directors Association discussed the potential changes at a board meeting last week, but Rose Carfagna Au, the group's president, declined to comment until more information has been disseminated to members.
The Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, the trade group for the industry, hopes state regulators will appeal it.
"We want to keep the professional standards as high as possible," said John Eirkson, executive director of the Harrisburg-based association.
The judge's decision on the law came in response to a lawsuit filed four years ago by a group of about 30 funeral directors, including Harry Neel, president and CEO of Jefferson Memorial Park, a funeral home and cemetery in Pleasant Hills. He described the suit as an attempt to push the funeral home industry into the 21st century.
It's something he's been trying to do since the final years of the 20th century. In the early 1990s, Mr. Neel and his father opened the first funeral home within a cemetery in Allegheny County.
Since neither man was a licensed funeral director -- and since they wanted to make the name of the funeral home consistent with the name of the cemetery -- they purchased a corporate funeral license from a Philadelphia company. They then hired a licensed funeral director named Jan Beichner, who changed her last name to Jefferson, a move necessary to add the Jefferson name to the funeral home and still comply with state licensing regulations.
"That hung with me all these years that we had to go through all these gyrations just to change the name of the business," Mr. Neel said. "It doesn't make any sense."
It also doesn't make sense that a funeral home can't serve food in its service areas and that only funeral service directors can own funeral homes, he said.
"We challenged the stupid stuff," Mr. Neel said.
Pennsylvania is among the states with the strictest regulations for funeral homes, said Scott Gilligan, the Cincinnati, Ohio-based general counsel for the National Funeral Directors Association.
Currently, only Pennsylvania and Maryland require that funeral home owners be licensed funeral home directors. And Pennsylvania is one of only five states that prohibits serving food inside service areas, he said.
Many Allegheny County funeral home directors contacted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said the food provision was a minor issue that could be acceptable, even if the director did not personally embrace it.
"I don't want to see a person putting a can of beer in the casket while they are sitting there talking to somebody," said Mr. Boron, the Carrick funeral director.
But other provisions of the law -- especially the one requiring owners to be funeral directors -- had greater support among local owners. Pennsylvania's law makes funeral homes accountable to their customers, said Patrick T. Lanigan, whose family has owned the Patrick T. Lanigan Funeral Home in East Pittsburgh for more than a century.
And that, he said, should be the priority instead of being able to serve food or opening up funeral home ownership to everyone.
"That's my main issue -- accountability and consumer protection -- and that's what this law has done," he said. "Now to change it, I don't know what will happen."