More on Religious Liberties in Pennsylvania and Funeral Regulations

August 13th, 2012

Last week, I blogged about a new suit filed in a Rabbi in Pennsylvania, challenging the state funeral board regulations on religious liberty grounds. It seems that Rabbi Wasserman (whom I know from my time in Western PA) got a good luck of the drawer, as Judge John Jones III was assigned to the case. A few months ago, Jones struck down several portions of the funeral regulations.

While the challenge Jones previously considered was grounded in economic liberties, this challenge is one of religious liberties. The Pittsburgh Tribune has an interesting set of interviews of leaders of different faith in the land of William Penn–a colony created to foster religious tolerance:

Jewish law forbids embalming and cosmetology on bodies. The faith requires that burial happen as soon as possible, preferably within 24 hours.

Wasserman urges Jews to return to traditional burial practices as outlined by scripture, which involves bathing the body, wrapping it in a shroud and burying it in a modest coffin in a natural grave.

Jesus Christ was buried in accordance with Jewish customs, said Todd Van Beck, a funeral director and industry expert in Decatur, Ga.

“There’s nothing in the Jewish ritual that can be seen as working against the public welfare. They are beautiful rituals,” Van Beck said. “I admire the guts of the rabbi.”

The Rev. Lynn Acquafondata in 2010 founded Final Journey Home, a Western Pennsylvania home funeral service, but closed it after her first funeral when targeted by the same state officials as Wasserman.

“I decided I didn’t want to take on the funeral industry. It’s too expensive,” said Acquafondata, 47, a Unitarian Universalist minister from O’Hara who works as a hospice chaplain. “I really hope Rabbi Wasserman and others can make a dent in this and change the system.”

Imam AbduSemih Tadese of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh also is on Wasserman’s side, as traditional Muslim funerals are similar to those of the Jewish faith.

Local Muslims use funeral homes “sometimes at unbearable costs,” the imam said.

A Muslim family two weeks ago paid $6,672 for funeral services, he said, adding that typical costs range from $4,500 to $5,500.

“We are not trying to stand in the way of funeral directors,” Tadese said. “They have their obligations. But we have our religious obligations.”

John Eirksen, executive director of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, said Wasserman has the right to perform religious services.

“It’s highly unusual, the tension between the rabbi and the funeral directors in that area of the state,” Eirksen said. “I think this extends to, for no better term, turf issues. It goes to this feeling of someone overstepping the bounds.”

Morrison, who manages two cemeteries, said the state board should extend Wasserman the same deference it has Quakers since Pennsylvania’s founding in 1682.

“How can it be OK for Quakers to bury our own but not for Orthodox Jewish?” he asked. “The whole thing is outrageous.”

 I’ll keep an eye on this suit.