By Helen Williams
My grandson's friend was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in 2006. I tried to send flowers, but the young man's family had not made funeral arrangements. So I got involved and helped make the arrangements. Word about my help got around.
Since then, I've volunteered to help over a thousand families bury their loved ones. Perhaps it's not the happiest honor and certainly it's not the most lucrative activity, but it has become a part of who I am.
In my community of north Minneapolis, the rates of violent crime and poverty are high. I cannot control them, but I do my part by helping families with funerals. The most expensive part of a funeral is the coffin.
Thankfully, in Minnesota, a person can buy a coffin from anywhere -- from monks in Dubuque or Collegeville, a woodshop in Ottertail, a store in Duluth, or on the Internet. But you would not know about these options if you just read Minnesota law.
The state's licensing act for funeral directors is ambiguous. It implies that only funeral directors can sell funeral goods. That may be how local funeral directors would like it. But fortunately, the Department of Health has interpreted the statute in favor of more consumer choices.
There are a handful of states where funeral directors have had their way with state governments and gained a monopoly.
In Louisiana, for example, the only place to buy a coffin is at a funeral home. If you manufacture coffins in your woodshop or try to open a store, the state will send you a cease-and-desist letter. That is what happened to the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey of St. Benedict, La. But the monks are not staying quiet. They are suing in federal court to gain their freedom to manufacture simple coffins that both reflect their philosophy on life and enable them to support themselves. The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, is representing the monks.
Here in Minnesota, I am working with the institute's local attorneys to bring clarity to Minnesota's funeral statutes. On Tuesday I will be testifying at the Legislature in favor of a bill that would do just that. Clarity is important, because consumers need to know what the law allows and prohibits.
In this case, consumers should know that they have alternatives to the buying funeral goods from funeral homes, where I've seen coffins marked up as high as 400 percent.
Clarity is also important to entrepreneurs who want to open new channels of distribution. I used to order coffins from a retail store in Bloomington, but the store went out of business because wholesalers would not sell to it. Clarity in the law is essential to ensure that new retailers, like the one in Duluth, can get the supply they need from local and national wholesalers.
Unsurprisingly, the Minnesota Funeral Directors Association opposes clarification of the statute. The MFDA does not have good arguments but it is does have a good lobbyist. But even the best lobbyist can't dispute that Minnesota law already allows for competition.
The funeral directors' opposition reflects a problem with occupational regulation today. Too often, regulations are enacted under the pretext of protecting public health and safety but with the real purpose of limiting competition and raising prices. Our legislators should not be a party to this misuse of licensing laws.
The state has no reason to require a funeral director's license for coffin makers. In fact, coffins are not even a necessary part of every funeral; one can be buried directly in the ground or cremated. It is good that Minnesota's law does not allow the monopoly that Louisiana does; it allows grieving families some relief in an emotionally and often financially difficult situation.
Now it's time for the state Legislature to clean up the statute.
Helen Williams, a lifelong resident of north Minneapolis, is working with a coalition that includes the Institute for Justice, the New Melleray Abbey, the Trust for Natural Legacies, the Minnesota Chapter of the Funeral Consumers Alliance and A Simple Pine Box of Ottertail, Minn.