Rabbi leads fight for simple funerals
In a world filled with medical miracles, flat-screen televisions and increasingly smarter smartphones, funerals still happen the old-fashioned way for members of the Religious Society of Friends.
“We tend to do it the old way, the 19th-century way,” said David Morrison, 69, of Lancaster. “The simple way.”
For Morrison and fellow conservative Quakers, that means no embalming, no makeup and no funeral homes. They require a gentle washing of the body, a simple wooden box and as little time as possible between death and burial in a grave dug with a shovel.
“It’s part of our testimony and community,” said Morrison, a University of Pittsburgh law school graduate who said he stands “shoulder-to-shoulder” with a Squirrel Hill rabbi fighting state officials in federal court over his right to conduct traditional Jewish funerals.
That such a legal battle is being waged in Pennsylvania smacks of irony for Morrison.
“William Penn must be rolling in his grave right now,” Morrison said, noting that Pennsylvania’s founder welcomed all religions.
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Congregation last week sued the state Board of Funeral Directors and two officials with the Pennsylvania Department of State in U.S. District Court in Scranton.
Wasserman said the state instigated two investigations into his practices, based on claims that he violated the funeral director law by conducting funerals without a license. No charges were filed, but the rabbi claims the threat of fines and possible jail time had a chilling effect on both his synagogue and its members in exercising religious freedom. He wants a federal judge to bar the state from interfering with religious practices.
“This is not a personal thing,” said Wasserman, 47. “I’ve got a job to do. I have a responsibility to people. And I’m not going to let (the funeral directors board) keep me from my religious duties.”
Wasserman accuses the board of taking actions to financially protect the funeral home industry, which is estimated to record $13.4 billion in revenue nationally this year. Pennsylvania has about 1,500 funeral homes.
State officials declined to address the lawsuit or Wasserman’s claims.
Ron Ruman, a state department spokesman, said the funeral directors board includes five industry representatives and two members who represent consumers.
One consumer advocate, Donald Murphy, is a former lawyer for the state funeral directors association.
“All of our boards, when they make a decision, they do so in accordance with the laws and regulations that govern that particular profession,” Ruman said.
U.S. District Judge John Jones III will hear the Wasserman case. In May, Jones called the state funeral directors law antiquated and struck down several regulations contained in the legislation, adopted in 1895 and last updated in 1951.
Harry Neel, CEO of Jefferson Memorial Funeral Home in Pleasant Hills, is part of the lawsuit that led to Jones’ May ruling and said his group spent $1.4 million in legal fees. He thinks Wasserman’s lawsuit, which is being handled pro bono by the Reed Smith law firm, could further expose the state board’s practices.
“The things they’ve done to the rabbi are against the Constitution of the United States,” Neel said. “Nothing he is doing endangers the people of Pennsylvania.”
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.”
Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or [email protected].