Leaders of ‘death care revolution’ publish first-ever comprehensive look at challenges facing funeral industry

Photo graphic of a broken tombstone in a cemetery depicting 'James Hawkins Aug 5 1803 May 6 1903' with a graphic overlay that says 'Disrupting the Death Care Paradigm February 24'

Leading voices in the “death care” reform movement have published in the Wake Forest Journal of Law and Policy the first-ever comprehensive look at the challenges facing the funeral industry, editors announced on Feb. 28, 2018.  The Journal issue can be found at  https://wfulawpolicyjournal.com/current-issue/.

“We are in the midst of a death care revolution, and most people don’t even know it,” says Professor Tanya Marsh, who organized the “Disrupting the Death Care Paradigm: Challenges to the Regulation of the Funeral Industry and the American Way of Death” symposium. “This Journal issue is a must have for anyone who wants to understand the challenges facing the funeral industry today. I hope that it will spark long-overdue discussions between policymakers, industry leaders and reformers.”

The symposium was held at Wake Forest School of Law on Feb. 24, 2017.  Caitlin Doughty, a funeral director, leader of the “death positive” movement and the author of two New York Times best-selling books, gave the keynote address.

“The symposium was the ideal gathering of like-minds from around the country,” Doughty says. “Geeking out over the economic impact of death laws is perhaps not for everyone, but it should be!  Most people have no idea the way these laws affect their experience of death. Increasingly, our cookie-cutter American death culture doesn’t reflect our emotional needs and desires, and we deserve to know why. The work of the symposium is how we’re going to move forward to change death in America.”

Marsh adds, “The symposium was an unprecedented gathering of thought leaders raising a variety of challenges to the way that death is handled in this country. The Funeral Consumers Alliance, National Home Funeral Alliance and Institute for Justice were all represented, plus leading scholars contributed valuable data on changing consumer preferences and the cost of funeral regulations.”

The Journal issue includes eight articles written by symposium speakers:

  • Tanya Marsh, professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, contributed two articles.  In “Regulated to Death,” she argues that the economic model of the funeral industry is unsustainable, ironically because of the restraints imposed by the protectionist occupational licensing regime that created it.  In “Jessica Mitford was Wrong,” Marsh argues that central failures in Mitford’s historically significant critique of the funeral industry, the 1968 best-seller The American Way of Death, were that she demonized the industry and discounted the fact that many consumers wanted that model of death care.

  • David E. Harrington, who holds the Himmelright Professorship in Economics at Kenyon College, and Jaret Treber, associate professor at Kenyon College, contributed “Numbers Matter: Estimating the Cost of State Funeral Regulations.”  This article presents new data and methodically demonstrates the financial cost of particular aspects of the occupational licensing regime.

  • Jeff Rowe, senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, contributed “Caskets and the Constitution: How a Simple Box Has Advanced Economic Liberty.” Rowe explains constitutional challenges to the state statutes that license the funeral industry and his organization’s work to challenge those laws.

  • Josh Slocum, the executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, contributed “The Funeral Rule: Where It Came From, Why It Matters, and How to Bring It into the 21st Century,” which argues that the Federal Trade Commission “Funeral Rule” is a powerful tool for consumers and should be modernized to become more effective.

  • Lee Webster, the former president of the National Home Funeral Alliance and the Director of New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy contributed “Why Caring for Our Dead is an Act of Social Justice.” Webster argues that the rules governing death care and the funeral industry requires “an overhaul that puts people at its core.”

  • Amy Cunningham, the owner of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services LLC and Fitting Tribute Memorial Events LLC and a leading progressive funeral director, contributed the essay “Must it Stay This Dismal?,” in which she explains the challenges that she faced in setting up a non-traditional funeral service provider.

  • Philip R. Olson, assistant professor at the Department of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech contributed “Basic Cremation,” which focuses on “funerary alkaline hydrolysis.”

Marsh is the author of The Law of Human Remains (2015) and co-author of Cemetery Law: The Common Law of Burying Grounds in the United States (2015).  At Wake Forest School of Law, Marsh created and teaches the only law school course in funeral and cemetery law.  She is the creator and primary author of The Funeral and Cemetery Law Blog (www.deathcarestudies.com).