When she first opened The Good Earth Burial Ground outside Huntsville, Alabama, earlier this year, Shelia Champion knew she couldn’t sell caskets to her customers. That’s because Alabama is among a minority of states that allow only licensed funeral directors to sell “funeral supplies” to the public.
Shelia thought the restriction unfair—without any competition, after all, what’s to prevent funeral directors from charging hundreds of dollars for a simple cardboard casket that elsewhere costs families a fraction of that? Still, Shelia might have just stuck to developing her green cemetery had she not discovered another mortuary law that was even more restrictive: that any funeral, interment, or memorial service in Alabama has to take place under the supervision of a funeral director licensed by the state.
“I read that, and I was pissed,” she says. “It was like saying to parents, ‘You can’t cut your children’s hair unless a licensed beautician is standing right beside you.’ It was just ridiculous.”
And so Shelia, determined to fight, made her way to the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit group of litigators based in Arlington, Virginia. The lawyers agreed the Alabama funeral law was unfair and probably illegal. For tactical reasons, though, they recommended fighting the casket law instead. For one, restricting the sale of caskets “simply protect[ed] state-licensed funeral directors from competition,” they argued, and thus represented a very clear “unconstitutional abuse of government power.”
Shelia took their advice, and the group sued in April of this year. A month later, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley intervened and signed a bill removing it. Now anyone—carpenters, artisans, entrepreneurs, even green burial advocates like Shelia—can sell caskets to the public in Alabama.
“We’re just simple people from Hazel Green, Alabama,” said Shelia, after her win. “For this to happen has been awesome.”
Already, she is looking to take advantage of her newly won rights. Seeing “no sense” in a burial that uses anything more elaborate and expensive than a shroud or cardboard box, Shelia had been in touch with a casket maker downstate who she hopes will supply them to families seeking final rest in The Good Earth.
But that doesn’t mean the aptly named activist has forgotten about the funeral law that first angered her, the one that requires funeral directors to oversee all send-offs. “I can’t really discuss what our next step will be [about that],” she says, referring to her legal strategy with the Institute for Justice. “But I don’t think the State of Alabama ought to sit back and think I’m done with them yet.”
photo credit: Mark Meranta of the Institute for Justice