By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org
A Minnesota judge on Monday will be asked to decide if the government can require entrepreneurs to spend thousands of dollars on unnecessary equipment before opening a new funeral home.
At issue is a Minnesota state law that requires Verlin Stoll to spend about $30,000 building an embalming room that he does not need and will not use at a new funeral home he hopes to open in Minneapolis. The government argues the requirement is necessary to protect public health, but the attorneys representing Stoll say the law is meant to limit competition and drive up the price of funeral services in the state.
The state law requires all funeral homes to have embalming equipment, even if the owners do not use it.
There is no requirement in state law for corpses to be embalmed and funeral homes are allowed to outsource embalming services to third parties, which is what Stoll does at his one existing location — though he did spend the extra money to have the proper equipment installed at his St. Paul location when he opened in 2011.
Now, he wants to expand to a second location, but the costly requirement will hurt his business model.
“This additional expense has forced him to delay expanding his low-cost model to a new community,” said Katelynn McBride, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a national libertarian public-interest law firm that is fighting the law on Stoll’s behalf.
“We just don’t think where funeral homes have no interest in embalming that they should have to build useless facilities,” she said.
To reduce costs, Stoll has cut out many of the frills of typical funerals. His first location does not include a chapel and is located in a simple commercial building. He wants to open the second location in order to be closer to Minneapolis’ low-income African American community, where many of his clients reside.
The Minnesota Department of Health, which oversees funeral homes, declined to comment because of the ongoing litigation.
According to court documents, the state argues that the embalming room requirement protects the public by deterring fraudulent funeral parlors from entering the market and ensuring that any funeral home can serve any customer.
McBride said the real reason for the law is to protect the existing funeral homes in the state from entrepreneurs like Stoll who can provide services at lower cost and undercut the rest of the market.
The Minnesota Funeral Directors Association, which represents the funeral industry in the state, is not named in the lawsuit and did not return calls for comment on the case.
But Gary Anderson, the organization’s executive director, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in February that the embalming room is an important and necessary safeguard for public health.
He also characterized the lawsuit as being part of a trend of tearing down regulatory structures that protect consumers.
But McBride says a victory in court would mean lower prices for funerals and more choices for consumers.
“This case is about whether the government can make entrepreneurs do useless things and a victory would mean a decisive “no” to that question,” she said.
Eric Boehm reporters on civil liberties issues for Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected]