Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

thescroll_header

Orthodox Rabbi Triumphs in Funerals Dispute

Out-of-Court Agreement Vindicates Rabbi Daniel Wasserman

Print Email
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman (AP)

An acrimonious three-year-long conflict between an Orthodox Pittsburgh rabbi and the Pennsylvania Board of Funeral Directors finally came to an end this week, with the announcement of a “Memorandum of Understanding” that will permit clergy to carry out funerals without the involvement of a commercially-licensed funeral director.

As I reported back in August, Rabbi Daniel Wasserman filed a complaint against the Funeral Board with the district court in Scranton for, as he told me, “harassment, [the] illegal investigation, smearing my name, and trying to prevent me from fulfilling my duties.” At the root of the dispute were diametrically-opposed interpretations of Pennsylvania’s 1951 Funeral Director Law. Rabbi Wasserman insisted that the law did not mandate mourners to purchase the services of a commercial funeral director. The Board countered that the law did exactly that; therefore, any cleric who carried out a funeral without a funeral director was in violation of state law.

Backed by local Muslim imam AbduSemih Tadese, who also took exception to what he regarded as the unconscionable exploitation of grieving families by funeral directors, Wasserman’s complaint would have amounted to a major stress test for the First Amendment had it gone to court, given the potential outcome in favor of state intervention in rituals carried out by clergymen. As I wrote at the time:

The Funeral Director Law was conceived with two main purposes. First, it sets out the public-health requirements in caring for a dead body. Second, it polices the business practices of for-profit firms in one of the few areas of economic activity where demand for such services isn’t subject to the whims of market forces. But nothing in the law, Wasserman’s legal team insists, determines that a funeral director needs to supervise funeral arrangements, so long as Department of Health regulations on the storage of dead bodies are followed. And the demands of traditional Jewish practice, such as washing the body and wrapping it in a shroud, are, Wasserman says, completely in accordance with those guidelines.

After carrying out the funeral of a deceased congregant in 2010 without a funeral director present, one of the state’s licensed funeral directors reported Wasserman to the FBI for engaging in “illegal and unlicensed activity.” Though he avoided prosecution on that occasion, Wasserman was warned by a state prosecuting attorney that the case would be reopened should “additional information be obtained.” Hence the rabbi’s decision to file a complaint.

A statement issued by Wasserman following this week’s Memorandum of Understanding noted that, “…not only are all religious leaders and their congregations now exempt from the definition of ‘funeral director,’ but the State Board of Funeral Directors must implement new enforcement procedures and notify all licensed funeral directors and other interested parties about this exemption and new enforcement procedures.”

Wasserman, meanwhile, couldn’t be more delighted. “I’ve been fielding lots of ‘mazal tovs’ and ‘yesher koachs,'” he told me over the phone yesterday. “The news is still settling in and people are wrapping their heads around it, but there’s a lot of  ‘Ohhh, so he wasn’t crazy!'”

Related: Fighting for Jewish Funerals? [Tablet]

Print Email

COMMENTING CHARGES
Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

WAIT, WHY DO I HAVE TO PAY TO COMMENT?
Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

I NEED TO BE HEARD! BUT I DONT WANT TO PAY.
Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at letters@tabletmag.com. Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

PhillipNagle says:

It seems that a majority of our licensing laws are there to protect the profession or established businesses, not the public. I’m a CPA and I can assure you that it’s true my profession as well as most other regulated professions and businesses.

reikihaus says:

No, he wasn’t crazy at all! The funeral business is big money, and apparently the funeral directors didn’t want somebody taking away potential profits. However, we should have the right to bury our dead without a commerical funeral director, as long as the laws referred to above are followed.
Good on you, rabbi!

Poupic says:

What If someone wants his body eaten by vultures so that his body will return to nature where it belongs instead of poisoning the environment with dangerous chemicals used to embalm bodies?

Mazel Tov Rabbi Wasserman

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Orthodox Rabbi Triumphs in Funerals Dispute

Out-of-Court Agreement Vindicates Rabbi Daniel Wasserman

More on Tablet:

Klinghoffer at the Met

By Paul Berman — John Adams’s masterpiece is about an American Jew murdered by Palestinian terrorists, but the real opera is off stage