Squirrel Hill rabbi sues state over Funeral Director Law
An Orthodox rabbi from Squirrel Hill who years ago started encouraging a return to traditional Jewish burials on Monday asked a federal judge to protect that tradition from what he and other spiritual leaders believe is as an overreach by government regulation.
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Congregation and his lawyers with Reed Smith, Downtown, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Scranton to prevent the state Board of Funeral Directors and other officials from requiring that licensed funeral directors conduct or supervise Jewish funerals.
“I think Rabbi Wasserman might be the only one to take on a state in such a manner,” said David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, Hebrew for Honor and Comfort, a nonprofit in Washington dedicated to restoring traditional Jewish death and bereavement practices. “But I think he has been working up to this for a while.”
Since 2010, the state has twice investigated Wasserman because it received complaints that he performed burial rites in violation of Pennsylvania’s Funeral Directors law, which governs the funeral home industry. The law requires a licensed funeral director to be involved in a number of funeral services, including embalming and cosmetic services.
Wasserman contends the law does not apply to clergy like him because he does not embalm bodies or charge for services.
“It speaks of a funeral board trying to protect revenue streams for its licensees,” said Wasserman, 47.
Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Department of State, which oversees the board, said he could not comment on the lawsuit. He said the state’s Practice Acts govern professional licensees such as funeral directors.
“They typically require someone to have training and education in a particular field to perform whatever that service is,” Ruman said. “It is legislation that requires the presence of a funeral director, not the Department of State or the funeral directors’ board to say yes or no. It’s in the law.”
Wasserman has support from Imam AbduSemih Tadese of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.
“There is a need for clarification when it comes to what clergy can do when it comes to their religious rights,” Tadese said, noting that the country’s forefathers established a framework for religious freedoms. “That’s why what the rabbi is doing is a service to the entire religious community in the commonwealth.”
According to the 40-page lawsuit, a Department of State investigator who is a licensed funeral director contacted Wasserman in January 2010. That month, Lawrenceville funeral director Daniel D’Alessandro wrote the rabbi of his intentions to contact the board about Wasserman performing a burial on Dec. 28, 2009, without the aid of a funeral director.
D’Alessandro on Monday expressed his surprise about Wasserman’s lawsuit.
“The law is very, very specific,” D’Alessandro said.
He said funeral directors have to protect their industry because they must pay for education, licenses and fees on top of their business overhead costs.
“I would be remiss as a licensed funeral director in this state if I didn’t report what was clearly illegal and unlicensed activity,” he said. “I could lose my license if I didn’t.”
Jewish law requires burying bodies as soon as possible, typically within 24 to 48 hours, said Wasserman, director of the burial society for the Pittsburgh rabbinical board. From the moment a member of the Jewish community dies, traditional practices require the body to be washed, wrapped in a shroud and placed in a simple casket, such as a pine box, and watched by a religious honor guard until burial.
Those overseeing those steps comply with regulations of Pennsylvania’s Department of Health, Wasserman said.
“Our community still practices the way we have for 2,000 years,” he said. “The state has no right to tell us how to practice.”
Zinner said Wasserman’s lawsuit continues a movement for religion to reclaim funeral rights.
“He is making a very important point, in that the system is not designed to allow religious organizations to take the lead around death and mourning practices,” said Zinner, adding that Muslims, American Indians and some Christian groups seek the same rights.
In 2007, Maryland legislators amended their state’s law to accommodate Jewish and Muslim burial practices to allow people to become licensed funeral directors without training in embalming.
A federal judge in Harrisburg in May struck down parts of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Law, saying the state board relied on antiquated rules to help a cartel of funeral directors and their families maintain a grip on the industry. The judge gave the state Board of Funeral Directors until this month to respond to his ruling.
Wasserman is seeking an injunction preventing the state from applying its law to traditional Jewish burial rites.
A state prosecutor wrote Wasserman to say that the inquiry into D’Alessandro’s complaint was complete and that the office would “defer formal prosecution” but reserved “the right to reopen this matter for any reason.”
“They left us no choice, because here in America, you’re allowed to practice your religion,” Wasserman said. “This is a religious service, and (the funeral board) has no place here.”
Jason Cato is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or [email protected].