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Orthodox Rabbi Triumphs in Funerals Dispute

Out-of-Court Agreement Vindicates Rabbi Daniel Wasserman

Ben Cohen
December 19, 2012
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman (AP)
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!’”

Ben Cohen, a former BBC producer, is a writer based in New York who publishes frequently on Jewish and international affairs. His Twitter feed is @BenCohenOpinion.

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