- Associated Press - Saturday, April 9, 2016

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - A woman who operates a cemetery in north Alabama that requires biodegradable burial materials has sued the state to overturn a law that restricts casket sales to licensed funeral directors.

Shelia Champion sued the Alabama Board of Funeral Service in U.S. District Court Monday, claiming the law that prevents her from selling environmentally friendly caskets, shrouds and other burial materials is unconstitutional.

“It’s impractical to require me to be a licensed funeral director because having a green cemetery, we don’t allow embalming unless it’s done with environmentally friendly chemicals and I have no desire to embalm. So, why should I go to mortuary school to sell a casket?” Champion asked.

Cameron McEwen, general counsel of the Alabama Funeral Service Board, declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Under state law, funeral directors must be licensed in order to sell caskets, and those caskets must come from a licensed establishment. Obtaining a license requires a degree in mortuary science, a two-year apprenticeship and a passing score on a state exam. The state also requires funeral establishments to have proper embalming rooms, which goes against everything Champion is trying to accomplish at “The Good Earth Burial Ground,” considering Champion is an advocate of home funeral services.

Champion opened her five-acre cemetery in unincorporated Madison County in March to supplement retirement income after she was laid off, according to her complaint. The cemetery doesn’t allow embalmed bodies unless chemicals used in the process are nontoxic and have been approved by the Green Burial Council, which advocates for reduced carbon emissions and the preservation of natural resources and habitats.

The cemetery also requires burials in caskets, shrouds or urns that are made out of biodegradable material - which include untreated cardboard, wood and natural fabrics - instead of traditional materials that don’t break down over time.

“The casket sales restriction exists for one reason, and that is to protect licensed funeral directors from entrepreneurs like Shelia,” said Champion’s attorney, Renee Flaherty of the Virginia-based Institute for Justice.

The nonprofit also represented a group of Louisiana monks who were blocked by state regulations from selling wooden caskets to support themselves. A federal judge in Louisiana sided with the monks and an appeal filed by the state board of embalmers and funeral directors was rejected. Federal judges in Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi have also ruled that similar regulations violate the due process and equal protection clauses of the constitution.

Doug Williams, president of the Alabama Funeral Directors Association, said the state’s regulations are meant to ensure professional standards in the industry, especially considering the quality of burial materials that had been sold on the Internet years ago.

“Some of the materials being sold over the Internet and by less scrupulous people to families - they were getting junk basically,” he said. “I understand where this lady’s coming from and what she wants to do, but I also look at those laws and what they’ve done to protect people consumer-wise.”

Traditional funerals can cost about $8,000 or more, according to the Vermont-based Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable funeral services. Caskets are often the most expensive element of a funeral and can range from $2,000 to $10,000, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

“I think the funeral industry is crying out for innovation because prices are high and funeral directors have a monopoly on so much that families aren’t getting the choices they need,” Flaherty said.

“People don’t think you’re being respectful unless you’re spending as much money as you can to bury someone,” Champion said. “To me, funerals have turned into this mysterious process that people think ‘Oh it’s something magical that a funeral home does that only a funeral home has the expertise,’ when it’s only a matter of love and compassion to do the final rites and acts with your loved one and then follow through the process with burial.”

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